In the Torah reading this week, the unthinkable happens. There’s a moment that no parent should ever have to see: to witness the death of one’s own children. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon HaKohen, Aaron the High Priest, bring esh zarah, strange fire, before God. As a result of their actions, fire comes out of the sacred shrine, and the two young men are killed before their father, and before all 600,000 Israelites. It’s a stunning moment. And in the shock and horror, Moses speaks God’s words: birkrovai ekadesh, through those near to me, I, God make myself holy. And in response to Moses words, in response to the shocking death of his children, the Torah uses only two words to describe Aaron’s reaction: vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent. Most of could only imagine how we would respond at such a sight: searing horror, grief, agony, screaming out in indescribable anguish. But in the case of Aharon, all it says is vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent, still. Perhaps, on some level, we can imagine ourselves relating to Aharon in his reaction: having no words, being unable to move, to breathe, to think at such a moment of shock. And yet, any of us who have known loss and anguish know that there is not just wordless shock, there is also the unbearable pain, the anguish, and in this case, anger. Where’s Aaron’s anger at God for taking his children’s life? Where is his very human pain in the midst of such a tragedy? Why doesn’t the Torah show us his humanity at such a moment, as a comfort to us all, as we all deal with crisis and tragedy and pain in our lives?
Of course, our tradition understands Aaron to be no ordinary man. He is a great man, a man who is beloved of the people even more than Moses. As the high priest, he lives in a lofty place of insight and wisdom above and beyond most any of us. And so, our tradition calls us to see a lesson in wisdom in Aaron’s silence and stillness in the face of his tragedy. There was once a teaching given in the name of Reb Shlomo of Radomsk: When the Torah says ‘vayidom Aharon,’ and Aaron was silent, it’s a reference of praise to Aharon. It’s a reference to the high madrega, or spiritual level, he attained in his life in his ability to ‘hold his peace’ even in the face of a tragedy of that magnitude. But the teaching goes on: Reb Shlom says that King David, however, generations later, surpassed Aharon in his madrega, in his spiritual level. How do we know this? Because it says in one of David’s psalms, “lema’an yizamercha kavod,” in order that my soul sing praises to You, God, ‘V’lo Yidom’ andI will NOT be silent!
Let’s take a second to understand this teaching: Reb Shlomo acknowledges that it’s very impressive that Aharon can be still and silent in his loss. It’s a mark of his greatness. But David was greater still because he didn’t need to be silent: he could sing God’s praises even without the stillness that Aharon showed. It’s a fascinating teaching: maybe it’s a critique of the tradition that sees Aaron as great in his self restraint. Perhaps it’s saying that it’s better, it’s healthier NOT to be so measured and reserved, but to let it all hang out! Maybe that’s what this teaching means, but I suspect that it actually is coming to teach us something even deeper. I think it’s coming to teach us something about that very amazing Hebrew word, Vayidom, the word for Silence, that Aharon showed us. The root of the Hebrew Vayidom is the Hebrew Domem. It means, ‘silence,’ but it’s a very powerful kind of silence. It is the deepest experience of silence. It doesn’t mean just the absence of noise or sound. It’s a word that refers to Ultimate Stillness. Picture a completely placid lake, that reflects back the sky like perfectly polished glass. Picture a lake so still that not a single tiny ripple disturbs its surface. The Hebrew Domem calls upon this image: not a ripple of sound could possibly disturb this kind of perfect stillness, and few, if any of us, have ever experienced this kind of total stillness.
The subject of deep silence is one that often makes people, particularly in our day and age, rather uncomfortable. Silence can be disconcerting. Many of us associate silence with awkward pauses in conversation. Many of us run from silence, because in total silence, we’re left with only our own thoughts and worries and insecurities nagging at us. For others among us, silence is the experience of sheer terror. Silence, particularly deep stillness, reminds some of us of death, of hopelessness and passivity, of the absence of life and possibility. But there’s another aspect of stillness and silence that few of us have taken the time to consider: that when we welcome moments of stillness and silence into our experience fearlessly, it can be incredible, restorative, the very opposite of insecurity and fear, the very opposite of death’s finality.
The first book of Kings tells us the story of the prophet Elijah who, during a time of despondency journeyed to Mt. Sinai, the very place where God thundered the Ten Commandments to all of Israel generations before, because Elijah wanted to hear the voice of God speaking to him personally. And the story describes how all these amazing forces of nature revealed themselves to Elijah: first, a great wind blasted the face of the mountain, shattering even the rocks on the Cliffside. But, says the story, Lo BaRuach Adonai: God was not in the wind. Then, a great earthquake made the whole mountain tremble, but…vlo b’ra’ash Adonai…God was not in the earthquake. Next a terrible fire swept everything into flames, but…you guessed it…lo b’esh Adonai: God was not in the fire. And then finally, after all the fire and earth-shattering noise, Elijah heard a Kol Demamah Dakah, a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19: 11-12) And in that still, small Voice, was God’s Presence. Let’s think about the Hebrew for ‘still small Voice:’ Kol Demamah Dakah—the same word Demamah/Domem: meaning absolute Silence and stillness, the same stillness that Aharon showed at the death of his sons.
So we must ask ourselves: was Aharon simply in stunned speechlessness? Was he showing stoic self-restraint? Or was he in a place of listening to that still small voice in the silence?...
There’s a Hasidic story about Yom Kippur in Berdichev, centuries ago. All the Jews were gathered in one synagogue, waiting for their rebbe, Levi Yitzhak to finish praying. But on this year, something strange was happening. The rebbe, stopped his prayers, began muttering to himself and pacing back and forth on the bimah, visibly disturbed and distracted. After a long time of this, everyone began to become concerned: "He is asking a lot of us. We are fasting! How long will he keep us?" Still, they waited quietly for him to settle this divine matter.
Then he stopped and faced them. At last,they thought, he’s going to pray! They straightened up to listen. But Levi Yitzhak surprised them all and spoke: "At this moment," he said, "I cannot continue. Today, this prayer must be sung by one who is so committed to it...that he is willing to die while he prays." Everyone there was stunned by his announcement, not sure what to do.
After a while, he spoke again. "One of you must sing this prayer. In this holy moment, it must be sung by one who is willing to die in the act." They looked around at each other. Most of them had ideas about who it should be. But no one spoke. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, "There must be someone who is willing to sing this prayer now, knowing it may be your last words in this lifetime."
They heard a bench scraping. Slowly, someone was standing up. Strangely, the sound was not coming from the side of the synagogue where the machers, the important people sat. Even so, they were relieved to hear the sound of someone rising. Turning to see, they saw an old man, rising slowly from the bench against the rear wall of the synagogue. They were aghast. Him? Once, this man had a gorgeous voice. Long ago, in fact, he had been Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's Hazzen, or cantor. But he was so unsparing of his voice in the service of God over the years that he had begun to lose it. By the time he more croaked than sang, he was asked to stop his attempts at music, and he was forced into retirement. For years now, no one had given him a thought.
But this day, he toddled slowly toward the bima. When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak saw him, he smiled and stood aside. At last, the old man reached the bima, turned around to face the congregants, and opened his mouth. What came out was more growl than song. Instinctively, people covered their ears. Yet the old man went on, cawing like a tormented crow.
This man was to represent them to heaven? People in the prestigious seats began to exchange glances. Yet now they were distracted by other sounds - from their beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. He was bent over in an intense state of: what was it? Pain? Grief? Suffering?
As the old man went on with the prayer, his rough voice cracked completely, and for a moment no sound came out at all, except his labored breathing. His voice cracked again and again. The silences became longer than the periods of "singing." By now, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was writhing on the floor. He trembled. His legs began to twitch. The congregants were stunned. The old man's singing was painful, but no one seemed to be in as much agony as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak! Was he in danger? Should they intervene? At last, three respectable villagers approached the bima and knelt down beside Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. One of them touched Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's cheek. "Holy rabbi, are you all right?"
After a time, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak opened his eyes. "It is just as well that you roused me. If you had not, I would have died." Now he slowly stood up. "But I dearly wish that you never had. You see, in the silences in that man's song, I heard the music of God."
Once again, he faced the congregation. As he prayed, everyone’s voices joined his, in equal fervor. And that’s the end of the story…
It is in the silences between the notes, between the gasps of pain and anguish, between the noise we hear and the endless thoughts of our tormented minds, there, in those silent gaps, we can find the very music of God! This was the Demamah, the silence, that Aharon showed us in his moment of tragedy.
And it is also perhaps true that Kind David was even at a higher level than even Aharon—as was Elijah, as was Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev—when they could hear that Kol Demamah Dakah, that still silent Voice even as the noises of the world: the wind, the earthquake, the fire, the craoking voice of a dear old man—replaced the silence with so much noise. They could find the stillness even in the midst of all that.
In our day and age, we live in a world of so much noise and distraction. There is the constant droning of our televisions and computers and ipods and cell phones. There is the constant noise of a restless and frightened world: the noise in our own minds and hearts as we constantly worry about the future, about our children’s futures. There is the noise of oppression and injustice that demands our attention and action, to be sure. And there is the noise of so much tragedy and violence in this world, the anguished cries of so many parents who still must witness the death of their children. And there is the noise of our history of tragedy that calls us to remember, like the rememberance of the Shoah that we will comemoriate at the Garden of the Righteous ceremony here next week. All of these noises are important. They demand our time and love. But when do we listen for the Kol Demamah Dakah, the still Voice of Silence itself, singing to us it’s heavenly Divine Voice? Without that Still Silence, the noise of this world can overwhelm us with grief and stress. That Kol Demamah Dakah lives within our very hearts. It’s there, in the silent spaces between our words, between the very thoughts we think in our heart of hearts. When we, like Aharon and David, like Elijah and Rebbe Yitzhak learn to listen to the stillness within, in that we find the context, the meaning, the strength and even the joy to be able to face the fierce noise of life itself. That Silent stillness is always there for us, just beneath the surface, waiting for us to listen. Let’s listen for it, and may it give us the strength to face this world, and to transform this world from noise to music, and from tragedy to joy.