This week holds a very powerful place in the heart of almost every Israeli: it is the week between the Holocaust Memorial, Yom Ha’Shoa, and Yom Ha’Zikaron, Memorial Day for slain Israeli soldiers and victims of terror attacks. Both commemoration days, exactly one week apart from each other, are meant for us to be still and contemplate the most unimaginable part of both our collective and individual history, the inconceivable tragedies of lost lives.
Coincidentally or not, one of the subjects discussed in the Torah portion of this Shabbat—Parshat Shmini in Leviticus—also discusses an unimaginably painful, tragic loss.
Parshat Shmini, which literally means “the eighth,” tells us that on the eighth day following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons began to officiate as Kohanim (Priests). An outburst of God’s powerful fire consumes the offerings on the altar and a Divine Presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary.
But for some unclear reason, Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a, “strange, alien fire before God” (Levit. 10:1), for which God had not commanded them, and both brothers died as they were consumed by their fire. According to the Torah, God then sent a message to Aaron through Moses saying:
“Bi’kro’vai E’kadesh, ve’al p’nei khol ha’am e’ka’ved; I shall show myself as holy to those who are near me—but I will show no mercy to everyone else.” (10:3).
And then we read that, “Va’yidom Aharon; and Aaron was silent [in the face of this tragedy].” (10:3). Aharon, a grieving father, responded with profound, stunned, shattered and shocked silence. He did not protest, blame, nor revolt against God’s action. Aharon responded with complete and utter silence.
The reality is that such loss cannot be explained. Not even by our sages. Even Cha’zal, the most sophisticated Talmudic commentators of all time, have struggled to interpret this bizarre incident for many centuries. Though there is speculation of God’s possible reasons for destroying Aharon’s two sons, still, sometimes such incidents cannot be explained by the power of reason.
This past Wednesday, for those of you who joined a Community Holocaust Memorial in one of our local Jewish centers, you probably became aware that Holocaust survivors still around to tell their stories are dwindling in numbers; they are among the last of that generation.
In Israel, “Holocaust Memorial” is called Yom Ha’Shoah Ve’Hagvura, which actually translates to “Day of Catastrophe and of Bravery,” not just Holocaust Memorial. We give voice and we remember the unimaginable loss of millions of innocent lives, along with the bravery of those who dared to rise in an attempt to defend themselves against the Nazis during WWII.
And each year at 11am on the morning of Yom Ha’Shoah, all of Israel stops and stands still for one whole minute, in silence, while heart piercing sirens wail all across the land. No one moves, no one speaks, everyone is still and silent.
The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) has declared that Next Wednesday, the 3rd of the Hebrew month of Iyar, is another Memorial Day. A day to remember those who lost their lives in the struggle to establish the State of Israel. Each year we commemorate all personnel who were killed during their active duty in Israel’s military.
Immediately a day after that, on the 4th of Iyar, Israelis will celebrate Yom Ha’Atsmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence. Joining these two days together, a week after the Holocaust Memorial, conveys a simple yet powerful message: all Israelis owe our independence and the very existence of our Jewish state to all those who sacrificed their lives so we can be free in our land.
Unlike Aharon’s reaction in the face of his personal tragedy of losing two sons, Yom Ha’Shoa reminds us that we must never be silent. We must continue to teach our children and their children of the tragic sacrifice of millions of lives. Never again, we must never be silent. But we do stand in silence as a sign of sheer grief.
Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day, reminds us that our freedom was not served to us on a silver platter. Many, many lives were sacrificed to allow us to, “lihyot am chofshi be’artzenu; to be a free People in our land; be’eretz Tzion, vi’Yrushalyim; in the Land of Israel and in Jerusalem.” And so for 24 hours (from sunset to sunset) all places of public entertainment (theaters, cinemas, nightclubs, and so on), are closed for business. And Israelis, to never again be silent in the face of tragedy, express the grief of our loss with the wail of very loud and powerful sirens throughout the country twice, during which all activity comes to a halt to remember, “never again.”
In the face of her own tragic loss of a son, the American author Blu Greenberg wrote a very painful-to-read essay titled, “The Deepest Response of Love:”
“[During Shiva in our house,] most people understood at the deepest level that there was nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. And we ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of [this loss]. Aaron’s response is the most profound human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly, or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to [relieve] the pain and loss of those who love them.”—The Deepest Response of Love, www.myjewishlearning.com
Our tradition, which is so beautifully turned to the needs of the mourners among us, teaches that there is a, “time for everything that happens under heaven: a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. A time to be quiet, and a time to speak.”
Aharon was stricken with silence in Parshat Shmini. We commemorate Holocaust and Israel’s Yom Ha’zikaron with moments of silence, but we also tell our stories and teach future generations, as was commented to us in our Torah thousands of years ago. As Ellie Wiesel wrote:
There is only Silence
The silence of Job.
The silence of the six million.
The silence of Memory
Let us remember them as we link our silences.