In Praise of Silence (Beyond 8)

We’re coming to the end of the eighth day out, the first full day of this omer journey in which we are not celebrating Passover and/or Shabbat [written on April 12, 2015]. The Torah portion for this week is also called “Eighth [Shemini]” and speaks of the eighth day of ritual in the wilderness, one which turns tragic, as two priests offer “strange fire” and are lost:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before [YHVH] alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from [YHVH] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of [YHVH]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what [YHVH] mean by saying:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent.
— Leviticus 10:1-3 (translation in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

The Deepest Response…

In her commentary on this portion, Blu Greenberg links Aaron’s loss in the Torah portion with her own loss in 2002, when her 36-year-old son JJ was killed in a bicycle accident:

What could have happened? We struggle to understand? Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire?

…Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.

…[Some visitors after JJ died] tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. “He was so good that God needed Him by His side” was one such attempt…I responded, “But we on Earth need him more!” Most people understood at the deepest level that there is nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. We ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.

Jewish laws of bereavement…stipulate that the shiva [mourning] visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah [law] enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.
— Blu Greenberg, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
(NY: 2008, Women of Reform Judaism), p. 632-633

…Is Silence

Throughout the centuries, commentators reading about Nadav and Abihu have rushed — as Greenberg notes above — to either assign guilt, thus justifying their deaths, or exonerate them and so vilify God. Similarly, our nation reacts to the seemingly unending litany of black deaths at the hands of police and others:

  • she was armed;
  • he shouldn’t have run;
  • he was a “good” kid;
  • she was going to college;
  • the officer felt threatened;
  • the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that each individual whose death becomes part of this on-going discussion about racism, policing and state violence was first a person.

And, somewhere in the midst of all that is to be said, we must make space and time, too, for silence.

We counted 8 on the evening of April 11. Tonight, we count….
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Acharei Mot: Something to Notice

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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One Woman’s Conclusion (Ex. 24)

One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah)
for Exodus 24:1-11

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how glad I often was that I was not destined to fully join my husband’s prophetic family. I, for one, was perfectly content as one of the ones who stayed far off [1]. I already knew I couldn’t — and wouldn’t care to — go a step closer.

But, there I was, among the seventy [2]. For the record, which is not always clear, there were five women among the atzelai[3]: Shifra and Puah by virtue of their standing in the community [4]; Miriam, because she usually managed to be everywhere that concerned her brother [5]; Serakh, because of her status as an elder — yes, I agree that “elder” is something of an understatement for the daughter of Asher ben Jacob [6], but that’s another story — and, you’re right, even 500 years weren’t enough for her to be considered an “Elder” with a capitol `E,’ but we’d better leave that for another day, too. And me? I don’t know exactly how I ended up there.

Anyway, there we were, the seventy of us plus Moses, sharing an experience… Or, at least we agreed about the bricks. Well, maybe `agree’ isn’t quite the word:

Abihu saw a pattern of complex crystals [7]; Nadav, fired brick [8]. Aaron saw the foundation stones of the Covenant [9]. Someone said the pyramid bricks had been transformed into gemstones [10]. Shifra saw glistening birthing stones and even wondered aloud if we’d be inundated when the waters really broke [11]. Puah said no, labor must be further along, given all the quaking and thunder [12]. The rest of us knew better than to get into that one.

And, there was never much hope of agreement on the color. Some had clearly seen blue [13]; others insisted on white [14]. A few suggested that the surface merely reflected what was above it [15].

All told, there must be more than 70 different accounts, and each one will no doubt become the basis for many more tales [16]. So, let me stick to mine.

When we first arrived at the place, we were engulfed in ground-fog. Nadav and Abihu were already trying to climb higher, but Miriam reached out to pull them back. In the end, she had no more success with her nephews [17] than I had with her brother, but that morning, the young men followed her lead.

Miriam began a dance. Abihu, Nadav, and the rest of us fell right into step with her, all of us whirling through the mist, around those bricks and their many meanings, immersed in the dance and the Presence. Maybe it was the natural way Miriam responded, or the community gathered around us. I’m not sure. But I do know that this couldn’t have been more different from that night at the lodging place [18]…

Later, when the sun’s rays were just beginning to find us, the veil of morning mist was suddenly torn from the mountain [18] bathing us in a light so bright and so blue that it took my breath away [19, 20].

“It’s not true, you know,” Serakh began, “that we can’t see God” [21]. There were a lot of worried looks then, but she continued in her calm, storyteller’s voice. “My great-great-grandfather’s second wife was forced to leave the family [22], but before she left, Hagar touched us in many ways and shared with us her name for God: God of Vision, God of my seeing, who sees me” [23]. I looked out at the faces around the circle, at Serakh’s ancient, furrowed brow; at Abihu’s eager, young eyes; at Aaron’s peacemaking smile and Puah’s determined chin. Serakh was right, of course. We can see God and live to tell of it. We do it all the time [24].

A twig snapped somewhere, and the moment was gone. Suddenly, as if we’d planned it — or all realized our hunger at once — we all began scurrying for our provisions. Aaron suggested looking for Moses, who’d disappeared by then [25], but Miriam and I agreed — a rare event in our acquaintance…and about something concerning her brother, at that! — to let Moses pursue his experience as we pursued ours. So, we saw God, and we ate and drank [26, 27].

And what happened to Moses? Well, I long ago gave up trying to explain what it was like being co-wife to the Shekhinah [28], and I never tried to interpret Moses’ experiences. But, I will tell you this: Everyone else will tell you that Moses had already disappeared by the time we started to dance that morning at the bricks. But I know what I know, and I know that Moses and I were joined for a few moments in that dance, not as husband and wife, but as two within the Presence. The weight he’d been carrying seemed to have become pure energy; he was light and free and burning again with the bush’s fire. And when we danced, Moses handed me a gift I’ve needed many times in these last 40 years — the certainty that the Presence would never crush him and that, because of the weight he willing bore, we all dance on firmer ground.

End notes:
1. “Atzelai,” Ex 24:11. At Ex 24:1, Ex 24:9, and elsewhere, ziknei, elders, are summoned. Here, the term often translated as “elders,” “great men,” or “nobles” is a different, rarely used expression: atzelai. In Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (based on Samuel Raphael Hirsch’s etymology), atzelai is translated as the “ones who stayed at far off.”

2. See Exodus/Shemot 24:1.

3. Buber says the term “Atzelai,” means either “corner pillars” or “joints” (Moses: Revelation and the Covenant, p.118). Another reading (Ramban) is based on the verb “to emanate,” because “the spirit of G-d emanated upon them. Similarly, `I have called thee mei-atzilehah‘ from those upon whom his spirit has emanated (Isaiah 41:9).”

4. See Exodus/Shemot 1:21, “And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.”

5. Miriam is closely connected with her brother’s life, even before it begins: In midrash, she is responsible for insisting, at age 6, that the Hebrew couples (including her parents) who had separated during Pharaoh’s decree, remarry and produce childrenamong whom is Moses (Sotah 12a). She follows her brother’s passage down the Nile, is there to offer a wet-nurse to Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex 2:4-7)….

6. See Numbers/Bamidbar 26:40 and associated midrash. Serakh bat Asher ben Jacob, who would have been born five centuries before the Exodus, is listed when the census is taken in Numbers; midrash links this apparent longevity to the grandchild’s role in announcing Joseph’s whereabouts to Jacob. See, e.g., p.85 in Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam.*

7. Ex 24:10: “Ha-sappir.” See p.175 in Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, “precious stone composed of many crystals.”

8. Ex 24:10: “Livnat.” Fired brick.

9. Hertz Soncino on Ex 24:10.

10. Rashi on Ex 24:10.

11. Based very loosely on a remark in Lifecycles,* vol. 1, p.8 about “a feminized Baruch She’amar” yielding “Blessed is the One who wombs (whose waters break over) the world.”

12. Alicia Ostriker* (Nakedness of the Fathers, p.127) refers to Revelation as God breaking through “heaven’s membrane, from being beyond time to being within time.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve read a midrash more directly making Sinai a birth-event, but I can’t remember where: If you know of such a text, please tell me; if not, you read it here first!

13. Another reading of ha-sappir is “sapphire,” though not apparently the corundum-based gem but lapis lazuli which was known to the ancient Near East (heavily featured, for example, in items from the Tombs of Ur, recently [recently in 2000, when this was written] on exhibit at the Sackler Gallery).

There is also a tradition that the tablets given to Moses were made of this blue stone (my daughter, Tracy Spatz O’Brien [then age 9], found this in her The Little Midrash Says for Shemot, with sources listed as Zohar 37a and Sifsai Kohen.) So, maybe what the atzelai saw were the bits chipped off as God carved the first tablets.

14. Clark’s Etymological Dictionary links livnat with “white,” “purifying” and “bright moon” as well as with “fired brick.”

15. Rabbi Meir’s teaching about the deeply blue dye tekhelet used for tzitzit (Talmud Menachoth 23b), links tekhelet with the color of the sea, the color of the sky, and the Throne of Glory. But, thanks to a drash of [former] Fabrangen member [now active at Adas Israel and with the Jewish Study Center] Sheldon Kimmel (personal communication), we also know that the substance which produces tekhelet is colorless until exposed to light; similarly, water is only blue in reflecting the sky, while the sky is not really blue either, but the way we perceive its light.

16. See notes on Psalm 19 (p.184-187 in Kol Haneshamah). Ha-sappir is related in Clark’s etymology to: `telling, reciting past event’ (Genesis 40:9), `declaring’ (Ps 22:23), `scribe’ (Jr 36:32), `book, collection of ideas’ (Genesis 5:1); and to the concept of “unifying.”

Marc-Alain Ouaknin argues, in Mysteries of the Alphabet, that Sinai was the birth of the alphabet, freeing written symbols from concrete symbolism perhaps even explaining why the Israelites “saw voices.” See also Yitro: Something to Notice.

17. Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire” before the Lord (Lev 10:1ff).

18. Exodus 4:24-26: On the journey from Midian to Egypt, Moses is attacked by God, and Zipporah saves him by circumcising their son (or possibly Moses himself, in variant readings). See also my midrash, “Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View.”

19. God tells Moses, “Come up to the mountain, and be there.” Buber says this shows we have to “be there” before the text, i.e., ready to receive it.

If you’re one of those for whom the phrase “be here now” immediately calls to mind Baba Ram Dass, suppose for a moment that after he turned on, instead of traveling to India, Richard Alpert had visited a shul on Shabbat Mishpatim: What kind of book would Rabbi Alpert (Rabbi Ram Dass?) have written?

20. Buber, Moses, pp.117: “…the representatives of Israel come to see Him on the heights of Sinai. They have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder (as I myself happened to witness once) and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned Melek.”

21. Compare, e.g., Exodus 33:20.

22. Genesis 21:9-21. Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the desert by Sarah and Abraham.

23. Genesis 16:13. Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, runs way from Sarah’s cruelty, meets an angel in the desert, and names God.

24. Consider, for example: Although the portion ends with ha-elohim meaning “God” — under whose feet the Israelites see bricks, blue, and one another — ha-elohim in the opening of this portion (Ex 21:6) means “judges,” earthly representatives of God.

25. Ex 24:11.

26. Set these ordinances before the people — as a table laid for a meal (Rashi).

27. For those who know that all the really good stuff is in the footnotes anyway: if there are tiles under God’s feet and blue above, maybe the atzelai were invited to join God in the mikveh (the gathering of waters designed to immerse us wholly in a moment, between past and future) or to join God as mikveh (“Hope of Israel,” past, present and future). Thus, the three immersions (fog, movement, and light). And/or, if the bricks are made from the same substance as the Torah (see notes 13 and 16 above), maybe the atzelai are immersed in Torah. And/or…

28. Moses enjoyed an unprecedented, face-to-face relationship with God. Moses is sometimes said to have wed the Shekhinah, the presence of God amongst the people, one of the feminine aspects of God, according to mystical (kabbalistic) teachings.

* Complete citations and further details can be found in Source Materials

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One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah) for Exodus 24:1-11 by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.