June 24, 2009

17 min read


Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )


After1 months of preparation, the Mishkan is consecrated; the excitement was surely palpable. In the middle of the celebration, tragedy strikes: two sons of Aharon are swallowed by a fire which emanated "from before God." 2

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And there went out fire from God and devoured them, and they died before God. (Vayikra 10:1-2)

While the commentaries offer numerous opinions as to the nature of the indiscretion which brought about their sudden demise,3 it is the words of Moshe which immediately follow that catch our attention:

Then Moshe said to Aharon, This is what God spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near to me, and before all the People I will be glorified. And Aharon was still.4 (Vayikra 10:3)

Moshe seems unsurprised by the tragedy; he tells Aharon that God had spoken previously about this situation. God would be honored by those who are near or close to Him. Rashi explains that Moshe here refers to a passage, recorded in Shmot, in which God spoke to him regarding the consecration of the Mishkan:

And there I will meet with the People of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My glory. (Shmot 29:43)

Rashi5 suggests that the verse should not be read as "b'chvodi - My glory," rather as "b'chvodai - those who honor Me"; thus, the consecration of the Mishkan would be carried out by those closest to God. Moshe explains this concept to Aharon, adding that he had assumed that the Mishkan would be consecrated with the sacrifice of Moshe himself or Aharon. Now that it has become apparent that it was in fact Nadav and Avihu who were to bring about the consecration of the Mishkan, this is proof that they were in fact closest to God, on a higher level than either Moshe or Aharon.6

Moshe is a man of truth; he does not strike us as the type to make small talk, finesse his words, or stretch the truth - even to comfort his mourning brother.7 Aharon, for his part, accepts Moshe's words; as the Torah attests, he was silent. He accepted God's decision. He accepted the tragedy. In this explanation there is nothing sinister about the deaths; quite the opposite. Nadav and Avihu were closer than any other mortals to God. Their departure from this world was sublime and elevated. They brought an offering in before God - and were soon taken before God, permanently.

There is, however, a question that haunts us: If Moshe is correct, if the two holiest people were taken as a consecrating sacrifice, what was the purpose of this Kiddush Hashem, this sanctification of God's name? Why did the Mishkan necessitate human sacrifice?

The Torah Temimah raises this question, and suggests that the existence of a Temple bears an inherent spiritual danger: Once the Temple exists, people may develop a cavalier attitude toward sin. If sin can be healed, fixed, eliminated - it need no longer be avoided.8 As an aside to this insight, the Torah Temimah suggests that Nadav and Avihu had indeed sinned, an approach which is absent in the words of Moshe. Moshe's comments to Aharon seem to portray their deaths as a result of their elevated spiritual level. Perhaps Aharon's reaction can help us better understand what transpired.


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Aharon was still; he was silent. Silence is considered precious by the Sages:

...Shimon his son said; All my life I have been raised among scholars and I never found anything as good for the body as silence... (Pirkei Avot 1:16)

The version of this teaching found in Avot d'Rabbi Natan adds that if this is the case for scholars, it is all the more so for the ignorant (stupid).9

Elsewhere in Avot, Rabbi Akiva lauds silence and calls it a fence for wisdom.10 Biblical characters are praised and awarded for their silence, such as Lot,11 Rachel,12 and Esther.13

The Zohar teaches that silence builds the Beit Hamikdash.14 What is the power of silence? The Baal Shem Tov is quoted15 as teaching that when one is silent he can then cling to the world of thought which is (real) wisdom.

The person who more than any other attempted to build a theology of silence was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov - Rav Nachman of Breslov. His writings contain numerous examinations of silence, and he often stresses its importance.

Commenting on the biblical description of the battle against Egypt, Rav Nachman points out that Moshe speaks of silence. The people were terrified, screaming in fear; Moshe calms and instructs them: 16

God shall fight for you, and you shall be silent. (Shmot 14:14)

Rav Nachman explains that through silence man can be victorious in battle; due to our silence we are victorious.

This is the aspect of silence; one should be silent and trust only in God,17 He will fight for us. That is the meaning of the verse, "God shall fight for you, and you shall be silent." (Shmot 14:14) By virtue of silence you will rise in your thought, for spurious heretical thoughts will be eradicated; that is the meaning of the charge "be silent - thus arise in thought"(Menachot 29b)18 by virtue of silence, thoughts are elevated.

Silence frees us from extraneous, hindering thoughts and allows our minds to be elevated; therefore, by virtue of silence, one can understand God. Silence is greater than speech, for silence leads to understanding.

The Niggun (tune) of the Tzaddik - which is an aspect of Moshe, raises the souls from heresy... and know that every type of wisdom in the world has a unique song , a unique tune. (Liqutey Maharan Mahadura Kamma, section 64)

Moshe, by his own description, was not a great orator. He is on the level of "non-speech," the level of niggun - a tune devoid of words. This is the highest level, as it connects to the world of pure thought.

Rav Nachman explains that the world was created by speech,19 therefore there must be a level higher than speech, a level which preceded speech, a level not limited by speech - rather something loftier, holier and purer. That level is - silence.20


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There is someone who did remain silent, though had he spoken we would have understood his protest: Avraham. Rabbi Akiva teaches that when God instructed him to offer his son, Avraham could have protested: Had not God Himself already said that Avraham's progeny would be through Yitchak? How can he now be bidden to slaughter Yitzchak?21 Yet Avraham remained silent.22

The Binding of Yitzchak is recalled in the liturgy of Rosh Hashana. We must note that on Rosh Hashana, in distinction to the other Ten Days of Teshuva, we do not articulate our guilt, rather we use a tool - a shofar, a horn that made its first appearance on the sacred mountain when Yitzchak was spared and the ram was taken in his stead.

And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Avraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering in place of his son. (Bereishit 22:13)

And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by its horns (Bereishit 22:13). This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed our father Avraham the ram tearing itself free from one thicket and getting entangled in another. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Avraham: 'In a similar manner are your children destined to be caught by iniquities and entangled in troubles, but they will ultimately be redeemed through the horns of the ram.' Hence it is written, The Lord God will blow the horn (Zech. 9:14). (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 29:10)


Rav Nachman23 says the essence of teshuva is silence before God. The shofar expresses this idea as it produces sounds without words. Rav Nachman continues: a person should be prepared to offer him or herself as an offering to God, and just as an animal can not speak, neither can we. This is the exact point of transformation: we have the capacity to speak, but practice zimzum and limit ourselves, and remain silent. We are thus elevated beyond the level of animals; we are elevated to that point prior to creation when speech did not exist.

This self-control is similar to zimzum,24 the self-limitation God practiced in order to create the world. Only through zimzum can a finite creation be allowed to emerge from an infinite reality.

Avraham is first commanded to sacrifice Yitzchak as a burnt offering. Eventually, a transference takes place and a ram is offered in his place:

And he said, 'Take your son, your only son Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you. And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and broke the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him.... And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Avraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son. (Bereishit 22:2-3,13)

Many years later, on the eighth day of the consecration of the Mishkan, Aharon is told to bring two offerings, a sin offering and a burnt offering:

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moshe called Aharon and his sons, and the Elders of Israel; and he said to Aharon, Take a young calf for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before God. (Vayikra 9:1-2)

The burnt offering would be a ram, reminiscent of the offering Avraham brought instead of his son - who was meant to be a burnt offering. This is a reversal of the very first burnt offering God commands: When God instructs Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, the ram is offered instead. On the eighth day, God instructs that Aharon bring a ram, but Nadav and Avihu become the offering instead.

Man must practice self-control; we learn this from Avraham's silence, the very same silence that allows the shofar - sound without words, the ram instead of Yitchak, to act as a symbol of our longing for closeness with God. This silence expresses total belief and trust in God, bringing the relationship to the point at which an offering is no longer needed. In his silence, Avraham sacrificed his speech; he forfeited the human trademark, distance himself from all extraneous, confusing thoughts and images which speech conjures, and became "animal-like" in terms of speech, but angelic in terms of thought. Having achieved that level, the sound of silence, represented by animal-like cry of the shofar, cleansed of words, free of human ego and confusion, could replace his son as the offering.

Rather than subduing themselves, instead of employing self-restraint, instead of practicing zimzum, Nadav and Avihu press on. Boldly, they bring an offering that God did not call for. Their behavior is ecstatic, essentially human, seeming to overflow and leave behind the boundaries that divide man and God. God's responds in kind, and they are taken beyond the bounds of humanity. They become part and parcel of the consecrating fire. They become a korban olah.

When Aharon understands this, he is silent; he practices self-limitation. His gesture is the opposite of his children's behavior. Despite the tragic differences between the two episodes, Aharon behaves like Avraham. He is silent - as silent as Avraham was on the way to the Akeidah.

The sacrifice of Yitzchak on Moriah was to consecrate the place where the Temple would one day stand. Avraham's silence transformed the nature of the sacrifice that effected the consecration on that day, and a ram was brought instead. On the day the Mishkan is consecrated, Nadav and Avihu are taken as burnt offerings instead of the ram. Aharon responds with silence, indicating understanding and acceptance.

Rabbi Eliezer Azriki in his Sefer Charedim25 teaches that real love of God would require that each and every person be prepared to offer even his very soul in sacrifice to God, yet we pray that we will never be called upon to make that sacrifice. We know there is another way to be close to God:

In my heart I will build a temple for his glory, and in that temple I will place an altar to his splendor. And as an eternal light I will take the flame of the Akeidah; and as a sacrificial offering I will offer my only soul.

We live in a world more defined by speech than at any other time in human history. We are bombarded by speech, actual and electronic. One of the great challenges we face is to learn when to stop speaking, when to be silent. We must learn how and when to listen. We must learn how and when to embrace silence.

According to Rav Nachman, when one is besieged by doubt, accosted by thoughts of heresy, instead of articulating them, giving them reality and spreading the poison of doubt to others, when should resort to niggun. We must attune our ears to hear and learn that tune without words, that wisdom that reverberates in every fiber of creation, which speaks of the oneness of God.



1. This Shiur was originally delivered in memory of Elazar Reiner, a friend and neighbor who attended every class he could. May his memory be a blessing.

2. Whenever the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are mentioned, the description always includes that they perished "in front of God." While any death is certainly tragic, dying "in front of God" seems to be a more elevated circumstance. See Bamidbar 3:4, 26, 61.

3. For more on the various accusations hurled at Nadav and Avihu see my article on Parshat Shmini in Explorations.

4. The word vayidom means "was still," as in the verse in Yehoshua (10:12) "O Sun in Givon, be (stand) still."

5. See Rashi Vayikra 10:3.

6.The context in Shmot is the constant permanent burnt offering, offered "before God," thematically the burnt offering, "before God," the sanctification of the Mishkan all connect this section with Parshat Shmini: 42. This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord; where I will meet you, to speak there to you. 43. And there I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. 44. And I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting, and the altar; I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest's office. 45. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. 46. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.

7. See how this verse is utilized in Avot d'Rabbi Natan chapter 14, where are taught that Aharon was comforted by Moshe's words. The focus there is primarily on Aharon's silence, and not on Moshe's words.

8. See notes of the Torah Temima Vayikra 10:3.

9. Avot d'Rabbi Natan chapter 22.

10. See Avot 3:13.

11. See Bereishit Rabba 51:6.

12. Ibid., Theodore Albeck edition, section 73.

13. Esther Rabba 6:12. This reference links Esther's silence with her tribal affiliation, of Binyamin, and his mother Rachel, who were both silent. Binyamin was silent about the sale of Yosef, which according to this source he was aware of, and Rachel was silent regarding her switching places with her sister Leah.

14. See Zohar Berishit 2a: I make mention with my mouth and I pour out my tears, and thus "I make them (the letters) flit" from on high "unto the house of Elohim" (Ps. 42:5) to be Elohim (God) after his form. And with what? "With the voice of song and praise and amidst a festive throng" (ibid.).' Said R. Eleazar, 'My keeping silence was the means of building the sanctuary above and the sanctuary below. Verily "speech is worth a sela, silence two." Speech is worth a sela, namely, my exposition and remarks on the subject; but silence is worth two, since through my silence two worlds were built together.'

15. See Mekor Mayim Chayim Parshat Ekev.

16. The word tacharishun means "be silent." See Unkolus, Ibn Ezra, Bchor Shor, Chizkuni, and Baal Haturim who cites Job 13:5 where the word tacharishun means silence: O that you would keep silent! and it should be your wisdom.

17. Elsewhere Rav Nachman teaches that silence begets faith. Interestingly, when the Talmud describes certain aspects of heresy, the element of speech is central: "one who says..." See Sanhedrin 90a.

18. This would not seem to be the literal translation of the passage - which refers to God's thought "those arose" and not "thus arise." See Commentaries found in the Ein Yakov Menachot 29b, and Maharal Gur Aryeh Beresihit 1:1.

19. Liqutey Maharan Mahadura Kamma 141 section 64.

20. The source for this idea would seem to be the Zohar Bereishit 16b: AND GOD SAID, LET THERE BE LIGHT; AND THERE WAS LIGHT. From this point we can begin to discover hidden things relating to the creation of the world in detail. For up to this point the Creation has been described in general, and lower down the general description is repeated, so that we have a combination of general-particular-general. [Tr. note: i.e. according to the Rabbinical system of hermeneutics, the 'general' (heaven-and-earth) is of the same nature as the 'particular' (days), being like them the product of a 'saying']. Up to this point the whole was suspended in the void in direct dependence on the limitless. When, however, energy had been extended through the supernal palace alluded to in the name Elohim, the term "saying" is used in connection with it, in the words "And God said." For to that which is beyond no detailed "saying" is ascribed; for although the word Bereshith is a creative utterance (ma'amar), the actual words "and said" are not used in connection with it. This expression "and said" (vayomer) opens the door to inquiry and understanding. We define this "saying" as an energy that was culled, as it were, in silence from the mystic limitless through the mystic power of thought. Hence "and God said" means that now the above-mentioned palace generated from the holy seed with which it was pregnant. While it brought forth in silence, that which it bore was heard without. That which bore, bore in silence without making a sound, but when that issued from it which did issue, it became a voice which was heard without, to wit, "Let there be light." Whatever issued came forth under this category. The word yehi (let there be) indicates that the union of the Father and Mother symbolized by the letters Yod Hei became now a starting-point (symbolized by the second Yod) for further extension.

21. See Meshechta Smachot 8:11.

22. Rebbe Nachman notes the one time that Avraham did err and speak when he should have remained silent.

23. Liqutei Halachot Rosh Hashana 4.

24. See Liqutei Halachot Reshit Hagez section 3.

25. See Sefer Charedim chapter 24, the words are slightly different from the song which was based on these words.


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