In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of the two sons of Aharon the torah recounts how Moshe approached Aharon apparently in an attempt to comfort him:
"Then Moshe said to Aharon, Of this did Hashem speak, saying, I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, and before the entire People I will be glorified. And Aharon held his peace."
The last phrase consists of two words in Hebrew, "VaYidom Aharon"; a literal translation might be, "Aharon was stilled". The classical commentaries differ regarding the meaning and significance of this phrase. Modern translators have also had difficulty rendering this short phrase into English: Rabbi Arye Kaplan, in "The Living Torah" writes "remained silent", while the Artscroll translation is "Aharon fell silent" and The Jerusalem Bible prefers "And Aharon held his peace". These translators echo different approaches found in ancient and medieval sources: Ramban writes that Aharon had been crying out loud, but upon hearing the comforting words of Moshe he became silent. According to this approach, Aharon may well have continued to mourn in his heart; when he saw Moshe attempt to console him, Aharon realized that he must be silent. The change was auditory, not emotional. Likewise, both the Rashbam and Chizkuni draw a comparison with Yechezkel Chapter 24:16,17
"Son of man, behold, I take away from you the delight of your eyes at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn nor weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh silently, make no mourning for the dead, bind on your turban, and put on your shoes on your feet, and cover not your lips, nor eat the bread of men."
The Seforno, on the other hand, stresses that Aharon's silence indicated an emotional change; indeed, Aharon was comforted.(1)
Onkelus renders the term Vayidom as "silence": Aharon was silent. However there is another tradition(2) containing an alternative reading of the Targum; instead of ushatik - silence, "Ushavach Aharon" - Aharon praised God. The Rambam (commentary to the Mishna, Avot 3:3, Kapach Edition) cites this reading of the Targum. The Mishna states:
"R. Hananiah b. Teradion said: [when] two sit together and there are no words of Torah [spoken] between them, lo, this [constitutes] a session of scorners, as it is said: nor sat he in the seat of the scornful; but [when] two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: then they that feared the lord spoke one with another; and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon his name . - I have no [scriptural proof for the presence of the Shechinah] except [among] two.(3) As for one who sits and studies, Scripture accounts it unto him as if he fulfilled the whole Torah, as it is said, (Echah Chapter 3:28) then one sits alone (and meditates) in stillness, it is as he hath taken (the yoke of the Torah) upon himself." (Avot 3:3)
When one person sits alone and occupies himself with Torah the person is rewarded. The verse cited in the Mishna uses the word Vayidom – which we have been translating as "silence". Here, the individual is engaged in solitary study, an act which can be verbal or meditative. The Rambam compares this verse to Melachim I, 19:12 "And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still (D'mamah) small voice" - clearly not silence, but perhaps implying stillness or a sense of serenity and a revelation. Rambam understands the term as denoting a quiet or secretive communication; if this is silence then it is a silence with sound. Likewise the Rambam teaches that this is the understanding of the use of the word "vayidom" in connection with Aharon: "Ushavach Aharon" - Aharon softly praised God. This approach is supported by a passage in the Sifri (Piska 58) that compares the verse in Melachim ("...and after the fire a still (D'mamah) small voice") and the phrase "Vayidom Aharon": According to the Sifri, both indicate a type of revelation. To paraphrase the Sifri, "when God speaks, man is silent". Aharon's silence seems to be a response to some Divine statement; what emerged was an inaudible word of praise.
Rashi, too, links the silence of Aharon with a revelation, explaining that Aharon remained silent - something which was extremely difficult to do - and was consequently rewarded for his silence:
"And Aharon was silent" - He received a reward for his silence; and what was the reward he received? That the subsequent Divine address was made to him alone and not to Moshe also for to him alone was spoken the section (10:8-11) dealing with those who are intoxicated by wine.(4) (See Zevachim: 115b) [Rashi 10:3](5)
According to Rashi, Aharon's silence caused the revelation. The proof for Rashi is the following section in the Torah which is addressed to Aharon exclusively:
"And the Lord spoke to Aharon, saying. Do not drink wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. And that you may differentiate between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean. And that you may teach the People of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by the hand of Moshe." (6) (Vayikra 10:8-11)
Conspicuously, the Divine Word is directed to Aharon and not the more familiar "Moshe" or "Moshe and Aharon". As a result of Aharon's silence God speaks to him. The Mahral explains that this is an example of midah k'neged midah, Divine quid pro quo. Other teachings of the Maharal explain the dynamics of this reward.(7) Generally in Jewish writings speech is seen as a divine gift, the definitive trait that distinguishes man from the animal kingdom. When man is created - after the animal kingdom - man receives a Divine gift, a breath of the creator:
"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Bereisheet 2:7)
The Targum equates "living soul" with the ability to speak. Man, endowed with a Divine soul, can speak as God does. In the Maharal's philosophy man has a physical component - the body - and a spiritual component - the intellect. Speech is the link between the intellect which is spiritual and the body which is physical. However the intellect can chose not to speak and remain purely spiritual. In the Maharal's thought, Moshe's inability to speak was not a "disability"; rather it was an indication of a soul that could not express its spiritual reality within the limits of the physical world.(8) Now, when Aharon - Moshe's mouthpiece - is silent he becomes worthy of revelation, just as Moshe was.
The Ba'al haTurim points out that the only other time in Tanach that the word "Vayidom" is used with the same spelling(9) is to be found in the book of Yehoshua:
"And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed" (Yehoshua 10:13)
The Talmud teaches that Moshe is compared to the sun:
"The countenance of Moshe was like that of the sun; the countenance of Yehoshua was like that of the moon." (Bava Batra 75a)
This verse may be a veiled reference to Aharon temporarily achieving a spiritual level comparable to Moshe's.(10) Aharon, in his silence, becomes like Moshe, and worthy of revelation.
Aharon witnesses the horrific death of his sons; instead of rejecting God or harboring destructive ill will toward God, Aharon accepts God's decree. As we have noted, some commentaries see his acceptance as outward, others inward; some see silence, others a silent prayer. The Rambam sees a lonely Aharon receiving a revelation as he utters praise to God, his religious conviction able to withstand any assault. Like Eliyahu in the dessert, Aharon understands that the word of God is contained in silence, in solitude. Perhaps Aharon now understood what his brother Moshe felt, alone, away from the people, but receiving the word of God.
Rashi (and Maharal) see the silence as the vehicle that elevated Aharon to this new spiritual stratum. Aharon is able to hear the voice of the Divine which one can not hear when speaking.
Rav Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Maharan, mahadura kamma 64:3) understood the same idea in the enigmatic Aggada describing Moshe's vision of the death of the great sage Akiva at the hands of the Romans. Moshe asks to see the reward granted Rabi Akiva for dedication to Torah and is shown the vision of Akiva's tortured body, hung on meat hooks and burned alive. According to the Aggada when Moshe sees the horrific death of Rabbi Akiva, he questions Divine justice, and is told to remain silent:
Then said Moshe, 'Lord of the Universe, Thou hast shown me his Torah, show me his reward'. 'Turn thee round', said He; and Moshe turned round and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls. 'Lord of the Universe', cried Moshe, 'such Torah, and such a reward!' He replied, 'Be silent; such arose in My Mind in front of Me.' (Menachot 29b)
Rav Nachman explains that through his silence Moshe can hear the Word of God. When Moshe questions God's Justice he his told to be silent – for by silence from speech and only using the mind one can transcend and understand the Divine Mind and Word. There are times that words are superfluous; they create artificial barriers and prevent us from understanding God's Mind. If one wishes to "arise" and understand the thoughts of God, then silence is the vehicle to arrive at that lofty place.
Aharon's heroic response to tragedy, his ability to contain himself, to resist the more human impulse to build walls and barriers, transported him beyond the noisy, physical plane. His silence allowed him to be like the Sun in the sky, like his brother Moshe, and to hear the Word of God.
1. This may be based on the opinion of Rebbi Yosi cited in Avot Drabbi Natan chapter 14 that silence in this case means comfort. (return to text)
2. See the comments of Rav Kasher in Torah Shelema. (return to text)
3. In many printed editions the last clause in the Mishna is as follows: "... whence [is there proof that] even [when there is only] one [person]. The Holy one, blessed be he, appoints unto him a reward? - Since it is said: 'Let him sit alone and in silence, because he has taken it upon him' [Echah Chapter 3:28]." (return to text)
4. Compare Zevachim 115b When Aharon thus perceived that his sons were the honored ones of the Omnipresent, he was silent, and was rewarded for his silence, as it is said, And Aharon held his peace. And thus it says of David, Be silent before the Lord, and wait patiently [hith-hollel] for Him: though He casts down many slain [halalim] of thee, be silent before Him. And thus it was said by Solomon, "[There is . . .] a time to keep silence, and a time to speak": sometimes a man is silent and is rewarded for his silence; at others a man speaks and is rewarded for his speaking. (return to text)
5. Rashi is based on the Midrash: R. Isaac opened his discourse with the verse, "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; And thy words were unto me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart; because Thy name was called on me, O Lord God of hosts" (Yirmiyahu 15:16). R. Samuel b. Nahman said [of: "Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified" (10:3)]: This utterance was addressed to Moshe at Sinai, but its application was not known to him until the occurrence happened, when Moshe said to Aharon: 'My brother, at Sinai, I was told that I would sanctify this House, and through a great man would I sanctify it, and I thought that either through me or through you would this House be sanctified, but now [I see that] your two sons are greater than you or I.' When Aharon heard that his sons had been God-fearing, he remained silent, and was rewarded for his silence. Whence [do we know] that he kept silence? - Since it is said, "And Aharon held his peace" (ib.). Whence [do we know] that he received a reward for his silence? - From the fact that he was privileged to have the Divine utterance addressed to him alone, as it is said, "And The Lord spoke unto Aharon". Midrash Rabbah - Vayikra 12:2 (return to text)
6. The emphasis that the Torah was given to Moshe may serve as the justification of those who explain the sin of Nadav and Avihu as issuing a Torah ruling in front of Moshe. While the content of the directive about the prohibition of wine serves as the source that this was the lapse - that they were intoxicated. For a fuller discussion see "Explorations" Parshat Shmini. (return to text)
7. Some of these ideas are found in the excellent footnotes of Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman in his edition of the Gur Aryeh. (return to text)
8. See "Explorations" Parshat Titzaveh. (return to text)
9. In our editions of Eicha the word Vayidom is also spelled the same way, while various other sources have all three verses with a "vav". (return to text)
10. See comments of the Chida in Torat HaChida Shemini section 23. (return to text)