Parashat Shemini: A time for silence

Parashat Shemini: A time for silence

Since March 8, many of us have been fixated on news and media reports analyzing the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which went missing during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. At the present time, the investigation continues, the search area has been expanded, and new information continues to surface.

The greatest tragedy in this disappearance surrounds the 239 missing passengers and their families, who nearly two weeks after the plane vanished are beside themselves with anguish and grief, and rightfully so. A recent article on contained a brief window into the families’ perspectives on the handling of this matter by airline authorities. One person was quoted as saying, “What’s the point to keep lying? What we ask for is the truth. Don’t hide things from us.”

Is there a Jewish response to this tragic situation? What guidance might our tradition offer us as we think of these families and acknowledge their pain and suffering, their fear and sadness, their frustration with simply not knowing?

A terrible tragedy occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu come forward to the altar in the Tent of Meeting and offer what the Torah renders as “false fire.” For presenting an unacceptable sacrifice, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by the flames of the altar and died. The biblical text tells us little about Aaron’s reaction, saying only, “Aaron grew silent” (Leviticus 10:3).

The rabbis of the Midrash offer a variety of interpretations, seeking to understand why Nadav and Avihu suffered such a horrific, untimely demise. Some of the rabbis claim that Nadav and Avihu prepared their sacrifice incorrectly, were intoxicated, failed to wash themselves before entering the Tent of Meeting, or that they were arrogant in their comportment (Leviticus Rabbah 20).

But seeking a “Jewish response” and craving “guidance from our tradition” is very different from wanting “a reason.” Some of the rabbinic interpretations from the Midrash, intended to offer a possible explanation, lack sensitivity and empathy, qualities that must be unwavering considerations in a moment such as this one.

To be fair, there are other rabbis who simply view what has transpired as a tragic accident and admit openly that they have no answers. These commentators wish only to mourn, to remember, to honor those who have died, to feel for Aaron as he endures such an irreconcilable loss. Fifteenth century commentator Don Isaac Abravanel comments about Aaron’s silence, “His heart turned to lifeless stone. 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.”

What if being speechless, what if growing silent, like Aaron did, is to be considered an appropriate response to the tragic circumstances surrounding the coverage of the Malaysia Airlines flight? Often, we don’t hold the reputation of being a “silent people.” We live in a time when we vociferously demand answers and cry out for justice.

Yet the question remains, what if we have no answers, we have no words, and we have only tears and silence? What we are witnessing surrounding Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is uncharacteristically tragic. It is easy to get caught up with “explanations,” conspiracy theories, and possibilities of heroic survival with bravura. It is ever harder to acknowledge that we are facing the loss of human life, the realization that families will be torn apart forever, much like Aaron’s family was torn apart in the Torah.

Twentieth century rabbi, theologian and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “There are three ways to mourn – to weep, to be silent, and to turn sorrow into song.” This deeply tragic time is one for weeping and for silence, for compassion, and for consideration of families whose loved ones have perished. We pray that someday, when the truth behind the Malaysian Airlines disaster becomes known, that these families in their grief and their mourning, might still find a way to turn their sorrow into song. Our hearts go out to them, and our prayers are with them.