Whether this is the first or the 50th time you have read Shemini, you can’t help but be stopped in your tracks by the fate of Nadav and Avihu. The Torah says, “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”
Nadav and Avihu were killed by God, specifically, directly, and publicly. And we must ask — why?
The rabbis insist their fate must have been the result of some great sin — it’s inconceivable that God would have acted capriciously or unjustly. And so they come up with all sorts of reasons: They…
• were punished because they wouldn’t cooperate with each other;
• refused to consult Moses and Aaron, showing disrespect to their father and teacher;
• were drunk; or
• weren’t married — they were so arrogant they thought no girl was good enough for them.
And so on, midrashim just explaining away the problem.
What’s harder to explain is Aaron’s reaction. On the day of his installation as kohen gadol (high priest), he watched two of his four sons incinerated before his eyes. The Torah says, “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said, through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’”
Moses’ words are usually understood to mean that God has higher standards for those in positions of religious leadership and will punish them for even small infractions. The verse concludes, “Vayidom Aharon” — “And Aaron was silent.”
The Talmud teaches, “Silence is the equivalent of admission/acceptance”; this is how many traditional commentators understand Aaron’s silence. Rashi says, “He received a reward for his silence” — namely, that the next mitzva prohibiting the use of alcohol by the priests was addressed directly to Aaron. In other words, Aaron’s silence signals his complete acceptance of God’s will.
However, silence doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance. The 15th-century Spanish commentator Don Isaac Abravanel wrote, “Vayidom Aharon means that his heart turned to lifeless stone, and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his soul had left him, and he was speechless.” In modern terms, Aaron was in shock.
Aaron’s silence might signify agony beyond bearing, fear that his remaining sons might also be destroyed, or overwhelming, wordless rage. Perhaps his silence is an indictment of God. I imagine him thinking, “Master of the universe, when I sinned my great sin and made the calf, you not only gave me a second chance, you made me your priest and appointed me to serve in your sanctuary. But now, when my sons respond to your presence with too much enthusiasm, you strike them dead? Where is your justice? Where is your mercy? Why are you silent?”
Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.