The Silence of Aharon and the Voice of Modern Jewish History

Here is an article based on my Derasha this week at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle:

quietFriday night, between Minha and Kabbalat Shabbat, we began to recite Shir HaShirim – Song of Songs.  Set as a romantic encounter between a suitor and his beloved, Song of Songs is a highly symbolic text depciting the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. In Chapter five, the pesukim read:

ב אֲנִי יְשֵׁנָה, וְלִבִּי עֵר; קוֹל דּוֹדִי דוֹפֵק, פִּתְחִי-לִי אֲחֹתִי רַעְיָתִי יוֹנָתִי תַמָּתִי–שֶׁרֹּאשִׁי נִמְלָא-טָל, קְוֻצּוֹתַי רְסִיסֵי לָיְלָה.
ג פָּשַׁטְתִּי, אֶת-כֻּתָּנְתִּי–אֵיכָכָה, אֶלְבָּשֶׁנָּה; רָחַצְתִּי אֶת-רַגְלַי, אֵיכָכָה אֲטַנְּפֵם

2 I sleep, but my heart waketh; Hark! my beloved knocketh: ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’ 3 I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?

Just as the suitor, for whom the young woman has been waiting, arrives, the woman refuses to get up to open the door, excusing herself: she has already donned her sleeping attire, and does not want to soil her feet…

What are we supposed to derive from this passage?

In this week’s Perasha, Shemini, we experience the tragedy of the demise of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu after they bring an אש זרה, foreign fire, to Hashem.

As Jews, we look to our Torah as a guide on how to respond to such tragic events.

This coming week, we observe Yom HaShoah, and the following week, Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen – followed by Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Independence day.

The traditional response to the Shoah has always been grief over the tragedy coupled with

וַאֲחֵיכֶם, כָּל-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל–יִבְכּוּ אֶת-הַשְּׂרֵפָה, אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף יְהוָה

Your brothers the entire family of Israel should mourn for the ones whom God burned.

But there is another response – that of the father,  Aharon.  The Torah reports:

וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן

Aharon was silent

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was a guest at Ezra Bessaroth quite a few years ago, relates the following story:

I was present, as a very young boy, at the first Sabbath circumcision of the Klauzemberger Hassidim in the temporary home they made for themselves in New York – their way-station between the European destruction and the rebirth of their community in Kiryat Sanz, Netanya. The Rebbe intoned the time-honored verse, “Then I passed and I saw that you were rooted in your blood, and I said to you, ‘by your blood shall you live'” (Ezekiel 16:6), as he blessed and named the newly-circumcised child entering the covenant of Abraham.

At the conclusion of his blessing, the Rebbe commented, “I always understood these words from the prophet Ezekiel, ‘be’damayikh hayii,’ to mean ‘by your blood shall you live,’ because of the sacrifices the Jews have forced to make for our God and our faith, we merit the covenantal gift of eternal life. However, now that we have suffered the unspeakable tragedies of the European conflagration, it seems to me that Ezekiel’s ‘damayikh’ comes not from the Hebrew dam, blood, but rather from the Hebrew dom, silence, as in ‘Vayidom Aharon’ – and Aaron was silent. It is because we held back from battering the gates of heaven with our cries, because we swallowed our sobs and continued to pray and to learn and to build and to plant, because we utilized our energies not to weep over our past losses but rather to recreate our communities, our synagogues, our study-houses, here in America and, please G-d, soon in Israel, that we continue to live and even to flourish…”

The silence of Aharon is the silence of our people, who understand how to face tragedy, personal, communal and national.  As human beings, we will never be able to grasp the reason: כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם נאם ה’ – My thoughts are not your thoughts, says Hashem.  Aharon’s silence is a period of quiet that allows him to meditate and reorient himself, in order to decide what course of action is appropriate in response.

The Klausenberger Rebbe’s approach recalls that of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik in his monumental essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”.  The Rav presents two models of how an individual can potentially perceive his existence: A person either sees himself as an object of history – tossed about aimlessly in a reality beyond his control. The fatalist tends towards esoteric, speculative exercises at analyzing his fate.

Another approach is that of one who sees himself as not the object, but as the subject of history. Born into a particular time and place, this type of person grapples with the question of personal mission, how to harness his resources in order to achieve his destiny. Instead of engaging in philosophical speculation, plagued by “why”?, he asks the question “what”? What am I meant to do in response? Like Aharon Hakohen according to the Klausenberger, this response is one of silence, of holding back from battering the gates of heaven with our cries, swallowing our sobs and continued to pray, learn , build, plant and flourish…

The Rav’s essay, “Kol Dodi Dofek”, analyzes the tumultuous twentieth century Jewish experience from the perspective of this model.  “Kol Dodi Dofek” refers to the scene in Shir HaShirim of the male suitor knocking on the door of his beloved.  In modern Jewish history, we, the Jewish people, can discern six distinctive “knocks” at our door, by our beloved.

The first knock is political: the astounding vote by the United Nations to grant our people a Jewish state in Palestine.  Rav Soloveitchik declares that the U.N. justified its entire existence with this single historical vote.

The second knock is military.  For those of us who recite “Al Hanisim” on Chanukah, we are familiar with the theme of רבים ביד מעטים – the many were given over into the hands of the few. The astounding victory of a handful of refugees from the Shoah over well-trained Arab armies was truly a modern expression of רבים ביד מעטים.

The third knock is theological.  The return of the Jews to their homeland and to Jerusalem, was a severe blow to certain elements of the Christian world committed to the belief that the Jews had surely been rejected by G-d and that all of the Biblical references to the return of Israel to Zion and Jerusalem was merely an allegorical reference to Christianity and the Christian church….

In his fourth knock, Rav Soloveitchik reflects on the process of assimilation that had overtaken the diaspora Jewish community by the mid Twentieth century. The rise of the State of Israel slowed down this process by providing a broad umbrella under which Jewish youth, who would otherwise have abandoned their Jewishness – could find themselves. It brought to the fore the inescapable reality of their Jewish identity in a way that no other process could have succeeded to do.

The fifth knock is the message that דם יהודי לא הפקר.  Jewish blood is not worthless.  The individuals and nations who have committed grievous crimes against our people will be held accountable.  The capture, trial and subsequent execution of Eichmann is but one concrete expression of this new reality.

I recall growing up in Canada, the book, “None is Too Many”; it documents the discriminatory post WW II policies of the Canadian government towards Jewish immigration. As one reviewer put it, “even when the war ended and the full evidence of the death camps became clear to all Canadians, there was no immediate lifting of the immigration barriers for the survivors”. The sixth knock is that of a homeland committed to opening its gates to all Jews. This final knock should not be treated lightly. “Kol Dodi Dofek”!

Returning now to the verses in Shir HaShirim with which we began: On a number of levels, our beloved, the G-d of Israel, of Jewish history is knocking.  How are we going to respond to our suitor? Are we going to answer, “I have taken off my robe, how can I put it back on once again? I have washed my feet – how can I soil them?” Are we going to see G-d’s hand in history and respond in kind, or are we going to doze off, ignore the knock at the door?

What is our personal, communal and national mission?

How do we go about living out our destiny?

This past Shabbat, a member of our congregation, Uri Chotzen, was called to the Teva in honor of his upcoming Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.  What an auspicious week, the week of Yom HaShoah, to be making such a profound statement of identification with the Jewish people, with our destiny!

As we individually and collectively all work to figure out what our response is to the various Divine cues that we’ve discussed, we congratulate Uri and wish him and his family a hearty Mazal Tov on his response!

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