Finding the words to comfort the afflicted

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

“And Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his offering pan, put fire in it, placed incense upon it, and brought before God a foreign fire, which God had not commanded. And a fire went forth from before God and consumed them both, and they died before God.  Then Moshe said to Aharon, “This is what God spoke, [when God said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ “Vayidom Aharon – And Aharon was silent.”  (Parashat Shmini, Vayikra, Verses 10:1-3)

The great medieval exegete Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known colloquially as Rashi, insightfully comments on the words “And Aharon was silent (Vayidom Aharon)”: Aharon was rewarded for his silence. And what was the reward that he received? That the subsequent Divinely uttered remarks were addressed to him alone and not to his brother Moses; for to Aharon alone was spoken this section (Verses 9-11) dealing with ritual limitations imposed on those who become intoxicated.”

Each and every time I review this well-known comment brought by Rashi, but which is previously discussed in the Talmud and the Midrash, I struggle. Why was Aharon rewarded for his silence? Is stoicism in the face of calamity really laudable and is it an acceptable response to the death of one’s own children? 

Over the years, I have combed both the traditional as well as contemporary commentaries in search of answers that might help me – and all of us – make some sense of this most perplexing approach taken by our legendary Kohen Gadol, High Priest. This year, I have been drawn to the writings of the 19th century, oftened embattled Biblical scholar known as the Malbim – Rabbi Meir Leibush Ben Yechiel Michel Wisser. In his extraordinary and far reaching commentary to the Torah, he suggests that the word used to describe Aharon’s silence – Vayidom – negates the possibility that Aharon was passively silent and simply accepted what transpired without nary an emotional response. In fact, we know Aharon to be a passionate person, described as “a lover and active pursuer of peace” and thus, it would not be in his character to be nonplussed in the face of such a personal and horrific tragedy. And that is why the verse begins with Moshe preempting Aharon’s response by offering words of comfort and consolation. Aharon hears these soothing words, accepts them, and only then is able to restrain himself and be quieted. The use of the term “Vayidom” connotes not simple acquiescence and stoicism, but rather a conscious and considered attempt to subdue emotion, center oneself, and assimilate the deep message conveyed in the calming words of a respected family member, confidant, and wise spiritual guide. 

There is in this a powerful teaching for how we too might respond when faced with the challenge of calming, comforting and quieting ourselves or others who have experienced reversals or even death. Might we – like Moses – cultivate the sensitivity to be of service, assistance and support to our family and friends as they face misfortune and tragedy? And might we – like Aharon – find sufficient wherewithal to show self-restraint when presented with potentially efficacious words of comfort? 

In considering these questions, I recalled a teaching of the 16th century Rabbinic giant known as the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew) regarding the Burning Bush, which Moses encountered prior to his assumption of the role of redeemer of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and servitude. The Maharal posits that the Almighty chose to reveal Godself to Moshe in the lowly, thorny Sneh, a modest bush, in order to underscore the point that God is always with us – even (or maybe especially!) when we find ourselves in difficult straits and circumstances.  The Master of the Universe does not “Lord over us” at such moments, but rather “gets down with us”, becomes mired with us, as we make our way through the complex and prickly vicissitudes of life. As the Psalmist reminds us: ““Imo Anochi Betzarah – I (God) am fully with you in your time of distress” (Psalm 91:15). 

Just as our great teacher Moshe was able to be present to Aharon and was able to articulate words of comfort and consolation even before Aharon began questioning and processing the enormity of his loss, may we similarly find ways to be available to those in distress and in so doing, provide a measure of comfort to those afflicted by the tumultuous challenges that life inevitably sends our way. And in addition, may we, like Aharon our first High Priest, merit the ability to truly hear and fully integrate the words of consolation and comfort that are shared by others and thus, avoid unnecessary and protracted pain, discomfort and distress.  

And may this be God’s Will – and our own. Amen! 

 

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at  Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.