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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-17) – The Sounds of Silence

>Every Wednesday evening we have been studying the Book of Job in the WLS adult education class (you can join us at 8:30pm when we resume on the 4th May). It has been a wonderful experience to read this fascinating book alongside a great class, always finding new meaning and interpretations within the text. On a weekly basis we have all been struck by the inability of Job’s friends to offer any solace, and their amazing ability to make the situation worse with their ‘words of comfort’. In the light of Job’s complete suffering one is left thinking that it would have been better if the friends had not opened their mouths at all. Silence would have been better than these ‘words of comfort’.
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As children we are often told: “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all,” and perhaps someone should have shared this pearl of wisdom with Job’s friends. Sometimes there are no words to say; in the face of suffering silence can be the best option.

In this week’s Torah portion Aaron is facing up to the loss of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by fire when they approached the Tabernacle with strange fire (Leviticus 10:1-2). It is hard to imagine the suffering which Aaron had endured witnessing the death of his sons while serving the God whom he served as High Priest. The first words of the portion demonstrate that this event was still fresh in the mind of Aaron and possibly the community as we read: ‘And Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron’ (Leviticus 16:1).

God recognises that in the aftermath of the death of one’s children, any words of comfort will be unsatisfactory, and instead God therefore moves immediately to the articulation of a ritual. ‘Aaron shall come into the holy place with a young bullock for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering’ (Leviticus 16:3). Following from this we are then told about the ritual of the two goats, one to be sacrificed to Adonai and the other to be cast out for Azazel (Leviticus 16:7-8), the ritual for the Yom Kippur sacrifice of atonement.

One may consider God to be rather callous by laying down a ritual, rather than offering Aaron any words of comfort. But on the other hand God’s continued relationship and engagement with Aaron may be symbolic of the fact that God was there for him, with no words offered, because no words would have been sufficient.

People mourn in different ways, and we always need to be conscious of what the individual mourner needs, rather than thinking about what we want to provide as the comforter. For Aaron the ability to move from loss to a task may well have been the best way for him to begin to move on from the death of his sons.

The silence also came from Aaron, who was unable to speak. Immediately after his sons’ death the text tells us: ‘And Aaron was silent’ (Leviticus 10:3); in the aftermath of this tragedy, he was unable to utter any words. It was only when he felt compelled to speak on behalf of his sister (Miriam) who had been afflicted by leprosy, that Aaron spoke to Moses his brother, pleading on her behalf (Leviticus 12:11-12). Through the loss of his sons Aaron lost his speech, but with the return to ritual service, Aaron found a way to continue.

At the end of this chapter we read: ‘And he [Aaron] did as Adonai had commanded Moses’ (Leviticus 16:34). We do not know what Aaron thought, we do not know how he felt, but we do know that after the tragedy he had suffered, he was able to continue with his life. Through the silence and the ritual he found a way to continue.

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