While every day is the yahrzeit for thousands of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, the 27th of Nissan has become a special day of commemoration because of its association with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on the Seder night of April 19, 1943. On April 19, 1948, Albert Einstein, speaking at the dedication of the first memorial to the martyred Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, said the following:
“This monument shall serve as a reminder for us who have survived to remain loyal to our people and to the moral principles cherished by our fathers. Only through such loyalty may we hope to survive this age of moral decay. Let us clearly recognize and never forget this; that mutual cooperation and the furtherance of living ties between the Jews of all lands is our sole physical and moral protection in the present situation. But for the future our hope lies in overcoming the general moral abasement which today gravely menaces the very existence of mankind.”
Juxtaposed to the words of Einstein, in this week’s Torah reading from Parshat Shimini we hear the sound of silence from Aaron the high priest.
“Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which He, (God), had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron: This is what God meant when he said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and assert My authority before all the people. And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)
The Biblical text then turns away from the wilderness narrative and for the next five chapters instructs us concerning laws pertaining to diet, public health, and ritual observances. However, for neither the reader nor the author has this incident been forgotten. In chapter 16 where the narrative resumes we will read;
“God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the Presence of God. God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.”(Leviticus 16:1-2)
By first ignoring and then simply noting that after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu Aaron and his remaining sons continue performing their ritual responsibilities, the Torah raises for me the questions: How could Aaron’s response to his sons’ deaths be silence? Why did the High Priest of Israel continue to perform God’s service without seeking an explanation for the death of his two sons?
Many of the classic commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, have inferred from the reading of chapters 10 and 16 as a continuing narrative that the sin for which Nadav and Abihu were executed was entering the Holy of Holies without Divine invitation. Others have suggested that the alien fire is a reference to some form of idolatry.
This year I want to suggest that we use the words of Albert Einstein, which were spoken on the day of my birth, April 19, 1948, and which are included in the Reform movement Haggadah as an additional reading to the traditional text of the wise son of the seder, as a lens through which we read the story of Aaron’s response to the alien fire. My question to the Torah text in light of the alien fires of genocide and terrorism that have continue to fill the headlines of our morning papers and our unending news channel reports, 67 years after Einstein’s hope, that we would overcome the “moral abasement” of that age, is: When should our response to death be silence and when must our response be action?
If we look at the silence of Aaron in strictly personal terms, I do understand his silence. There are times when the only response to a tragic death, especially the loss of a child or a young parent or sibling, is silence. Silence on the part of the bereaved and silence on the part of the comforters. The Book of Job reminds us of this as it teaches us that life is not always a zero-sum game and God’s presence in the world as master of both Justice and Mercy is both complicated and complex. There are times when the path back to faith takes time, which the more than five chapter interruptions in our narrative affords the reader, and perhaps the characters in our unfolding Jewish drama.
As I reread this familiar story this year through the lens of Einstein’s words at the Warsaw Ghetto dedication in 1948 between Passover and Yom Ha Shoah, I see it as not only a descriptive lesson in pastoral care, but also as a story that challenges me to question when silence in the face of death is inexcusable and immoral.
Einstein, who was not a ritually observant Jew, was, however, an early and strong supporter of Zionism. In fact his first trip to the United States, in 1921, was not for a scientific conference but rather to use his international fame as a draw to Jews to come out and support Zionism both politically and financially. Einstein was also one of the founders of The Hebrew University. In his recent biography of Einstein, Michael Isaacson points out that while Einstein rejected the idea of a personal God, he did come to believe in the existence of a Source of Being that was beyond the knowable universe. I therefore choose to hear in the words I quoted earlier from his 1948 address, a message from the man whose very name has become a synonym for intelligence, as a call to me and to each of us to understand that we do have a responsibility to be God’s Voice and Hands in the world.
Einstein called out from the Warsaw Ghetto 67 years ago this week that “We Jews must both remain loyal to the moral principles of our tradition and that the furtherance of living ties between the Jews of all lands is our sole physical and moral protection in the current situation.” As we hear the world respond with silence to ongoing genocide in Darfur; to the slaughter of innocent Palestinians and other Arab minorities at the hands of ISIS; and the countless other acts of terror and destruction that plague our world today, we cannot be silent. As we remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, we must as Pope Francis called out to the world this week remember the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by their Ottoman oppressors in WWI, and the all too frequent repetitions of acts of genocide throughout the 20th and 21st centuries and across the globe.
Let us this Yom HaShoah distinguish between the silent comfort we can offer a mourner and the sin of silence in face of evil.