Parshat Shemini: No Words

No words. This was a feeling expressed by many after this past week’s tragic terrorist attack. It is also conveyed by Aaron’s reaction to the loss of his two sons in parshat Shemini. This episode is one of the biblical sources for “aninut,” (the period between death and burial) and it provides insight into why an onen is exempt from most positive mitzvot, in particular, tefilla. 

On the eighth day of the inauguration of the mishkan, which should have been the happiest and holiest of days, Aaron’s two sons offer up a “foreign fire” to God and are instantly killed. Moshe attempts to console his brother, but Aaron’s reaction is heartrending: “Vayidom Aaron,” “And Aaron was silent.” Even harder, Moshe then commands Aaron and his remaining sons that they may not follow the usual mourning rituals since they must continue serving as kohanim. One midrash interprets Aaron’s silence as a statement of faith in the face of the tragic and unexplained loss of his sons. However, some commentaries explain the silence as the only way Aaron could express his pain and inability to mourn properly. 

Aaron’s quiet pain is reinforced a few verses later when Moshe loses his temper and criticizes Aaron’s remaining sons (by extension Aaron too) for not eating the sin-offering (hatat). Aaron reacts by teaching Moshe that it would have been inappropriate to eat that sacrifice. The Talmud Zevachim explains that Aaron was correct to eat only of the sacrifices which were related to the inauguration of the mishkan, whereas it was inappropriate for an onen to eat of the regular Rosh Chodesh sin-offering. Nechama Leibowitz explains that it would need to be eaten with joy and in the right state of mind, something Aaron was understandably incapable of at that time. 

Rav Soloveitchik writes that an onen is exempt from mitzvot because at the moment of such upset, one is incapable of properly fulfilling mitzvot or praying. Torah and halakha provide a brief respite in recognition of human emotions and times when there are just no words. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

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