And Aaron was silent

Rabbi James Bennett

BY RABBI JAMES BENNETT

By now, you would think we would be numb to it. Every day, across the globe, people die of gunshot wounds. In the United States, an average of 100 people a day are killed by guns, more than 36,000 each year. Hundreds more are shot and injured.  Perhaps we are numb to it, for it seems that our overwhelming response, the sound that reverberates most when the sound of the gunshots fade, is the sound of silence. And we are silent.

Of course, many of us do try to raise our voices, particularly in the moments, days and weeks after yet one more report of tragic gun violence. We may speak up in the moment, we may decry the senseless injuries and deaths, we may complain about the refusal of our elected officials to take action, we point fingers at the special interest groups, we listen to artfully constructed justifications of the nearly unfettered proliferation of handguns and assault weapons, we are told that the Second Amendment to the Constitution is more important than the right of every person to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Meanwhile, as thousands are murdered, as parents mourn, and as children are orphaned, we are mostly silent.

Silence can sometimes be a profound blessing. Sometimes, silence is all we have. We sense this when first we encounter a broken and mourning father, Aaron, in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. The Torah recounts how God has just commanded Moses and Aaron and the people of Israel to bring burnt offerings to God at the altar in the Tent of Meeting. When God consumes the offerings in fire, the people shout with joy and are humbled. 

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Yet only a few moments later, when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, filled with youthful exuberance, decide to make their own unauthorized offerings, they are instantly consumed by fire from God.

And, the Torah reports, “Aaron was silent.”

We cannot blame him. After all, he has just lost two of his sons. The compassionate and proper thing to do is to allow him his silence and pain, his loss and introspection. What can he say, after all? In the humbling and overwhelming moments of loss there is nothing to say. We must give him his space, allow him to mourn, comfort him in his grief.

But centuries later, silence is no longer enough.  For the same Torah that reports the words of Moses reminding Aaron that “This is what God meant …” as a means of implying that the death of Aaron’s sons was God’s intention also teaches that we are “not to remain indifferent.” 

The same tradition that teaches us to be humble before God’s presence also teaches us to speak out and act when we know we can make a difference and bring justice and peace to our world.  The same tradition that implies that we must be grateful and respectful for all of our blessings also reminds us to speak truth to power and demand justice. 

Aaron had every right to remain silent when he saw what surely felt like the senseless death of his sons. But he also had the right to do what he did not do, at least not in this Torah portion. He could have eventually raised his voice, he could have eventually lifted himself out of grief and spoken out in protest, he could have raised his voice in righteous indignation, he could have spent the rest of his days on earth working to prevent the senseless deaths of others.  

Aaron comes to be known by Rabbi Hillel of the Talmud as one who “loves peace and pursues peace, loves people and draws them near theTorah.”But, Aaron could have become an activist against violence and senseless death. Instead of modeling and counseling mere acceptance, he could have demanded change.

Which brings us back to today. In the presence of gun violence that we can actually prevent through difficult but achievable acts of legislation and regulation, through societal and cultural change, we act as if we are numb. We offer thoughts and prayers. We seem traumatized, grief stricken. We appear to be overwhelmed by the fact that every day the news brings us reports of senseless death and violence from guns. 

Like Aaron, we are silent.

Rabbi James Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah.