By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
When the news is too awful to bear, when death befalls people young and dear, when fire consumes good people at a time marked for joy, it is a time of “vayidom,” thousands of years ago and today. With super-human strength and hearts tough as steel, it is a time of “vayidom.”
Parshas Shemini offers uplifting lessons to illuminate our paths in times of doubt and difficulty.
At the time of Krias Yam Suf, a fearful nation was told, “Hashem yilocheim lochem ve’atem tacharishun – Your duty at this time is to remain silent, as Hashem defeats the Mitzriyim” (Shemos 14:14).
Chazal state that this advice is eternally relevant, as pertinent today as it was then. There are times when we must speak up and times when we should remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive.
As the Jews stood at the Yam Suf with nowhere to go and the Mitzriyim quickly approaching, Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Moshe that it wasn’t a time to stand in lengthy prayer: “Lo eiss atah leha’arich b’tefillah.” While in a time of danger we normally cry out to Hashem for salvation, this time was different.
There is an “eis,” a time, for everything, as expressed by Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles: “Eis livkos ve’eis lischok… Eis le’ehov ve’eis lisno, eis milchomah ve’eis shalom.” How we are to act in each “eis” is determined by the Torah.
Often, a good person is described as a “kovei’a ittim.” Homiletically, the phrase may have come about as a depiction of people who determine what type of eis it is and how to react to various ittim through the prism of Torah. When we say that a person is “kovei’a ittim,” we are saying that the Torah is his foundation and solidifies his responses to the vagaries of life. His reactions are dictated by the Torah.
In Parshas Shemini, we learn that Aharon Hakohein felt unworthy when he was selected to perform the avodah in the Mishkon. The posuk states that he was commanded to approach the mizbei’ach: “Krav el hamizbei’ach.” Rashi quotes Chazal, who explain the strange language as teaching that Aharon was told, “Set aside your humility, because you were Divinely chosen for this task.”
Although Aharon preferred to remain in the background, when told that it was an eis for him to step into a leadership position, he was spurred to action.
His sons, Nodov and Avihu, however, sought to go where they didn’t belong. They reasoned that they were worthy of making decisions regarding the Mishkon. On their own, they decided that they were to bring an offering of flaming ketores. The posuk (Vayikra 10:1-2) states, “Vayakrivu lifnei Hashem eish zora asher lo tziva osam – They brought a strange fire that they were not commanded to do.” Because of that, a fire that emanated “milifnei Hashem” killed them.
The Torah refers to the fire they offered as “strange” and explains what was strange about it: asher lo tziva osam, it wasn’t commanded. It was their own idea, and thus it was strange and unwanted. They meant well, wishing to share in the great celebration and helping out in the consecration of the Mishkon, but because it wasn’t based on Torah or mesorah, it was strange and unwanted. Thus, a fire went out milifnei Hashem and smote them.
People in our age who act based upon their own limited intelligence, ignoring or twisting halacha and mesorah to comply with what they think is necessary and makes sense, are worthy of condemnation as they play with fire.
Throughout the ages, our leaders were trained and formed in the crucible of Torah. Our people never looked to those who pushed themselves and forced themselves into positions of influence. Torah is the domain of the humble and the self-effacing.
Nodov and Avihu were well-intentioned, but hubris misled them and caused them to be lost to the Jewish people. Humility doesn’t mean that it is not important to be confident in our abilities. Humility means that although we appreciate our attributes, we accept upon ourselves the kevias ittim of Torah. We recognize that we are under the jurisdiction of the halachos and moral demands of the Torah. We don’t think that we are smarter or better than those who came before us. We don’t speak out of turn, and those of us who are not fully versed in halacha and hashkafah defer to those who are. We don’t make our own rules and set our own guidelines that are not in keeping with the way our people have been conducting themselves over the past millennia.
Because of his humility, Aharon Hakohein merited a life of closeness to Hashem, working in the Mishkon. He sought to distance himself from leadership, for he felt himself unworthy, but once he was commanded to rise, he fully embraced the position. As he served Hashem on the holiest levels, mentoring his people wasn’t beneath him. The oheiv es habrios umekarvan laTorah lived on the golden path, traveling the road of harmony.
Upon the demise of Nodov and Avihu, the Torah tells us, “Vayidom Aharon.” Their great father, the kohein gadol, who had just initiated his role in the Heichal Hashem, was silent. Aharon, a competent and experienced communicator, was undoubtedly able to express himself very well. After all, he was Moshe Rabbeinu’s spokesman. He was a man who pursued peace, settled disputes, and drew people closer to Torah. Why is it that when his two great sons were taken from him, he remained silent?
Because that is what was demanded by the Torah during this “eis.”
It was an eis lishtok.
He had no mesorah of how to respond. Nobody had ever experienced a tragedy like this. He had no tradition of how a father reacts when losing children who were moreh halacha lifnei rabbon, being makriv an eish zora at the chanukas haMikdosh. They were great men, with righteous intentions, but Aharon remembered the lesson of “Ve’atem tacharishun.”
Sometimes, silence is the correct response.
In life, we are often tested. Sometimes, it is proper to speak up. Other times, the best reaction is to remain silent.
When we are not aware of the mesorah for how to respond, we remain silent and wait for those more qualified than us to speak and provide direction. We are not to view ourselves in grandiose terms, as if we are able to chart the proper course.
Through perfecting the art of silence, we merit the gift of speech. Chazal tell us that the reward for Aharon’s silence was that in the following parsha, the rule that kohanim may not become intoxicated at the time of avodah was told by Hashem to Aharon alone. Because he remained silent, Aharon was given a special mitzvah to transmit. He was called upon to speak.
The depth of his reward is that there is no mandate to be quiet or to speak. The only mandate is to follow the ratzon Hashem. Our task is to be “kovei’a ittim.”
There are many issues regarding which we have no clear guidance. There are so many things that transpire that we don’t understand. We must bend our ears to the Torah and hear what it says. In times of happiness and other times, we have to think about how the Torah would want us to act. What would our parents and grandparents say? How would they react? What would our rabbeim say? They knew better, and they know better, because they know how to be kovei’a ittim al pi haTorah, and we have to learn from them to be quiet, tzonuah and humble, and how to be mekabel din and tochacha.
“Vayidom Aharon.” When his sons died on the day of the chanukas haMishkon, Aharon was silent. He accepted what happened, knowing that Hashem willed it so. And because he was quiet at that moment, he merited speaking to Hashem and to the Jewish people and performing the avodah. His silence paved the path for his family for generations to come and for Jewish leaders for all time.
Was he quiet or talkative? He was neither. He was an eved Hashem, devoted to following Hashem’s will, perceiving the change in ittim and reacting. He knew that nothing happens out of happenstance, and if tragedy occurs, it is because Hashem willed it so. Our duty is to accept what Hashem has done and wait until another day to properly comprehend what transpired.
The person who lives with bitachon is at peace. He is not easily rattled. No matter what happens, he is able to maintain his equilibrium. Vayidom Aharon. Because Aharon was a man of faith and didn’t become rattled, he was able to see the big picture and recognized that a kiddush Hashem was created by the deaths of his sons. He thus returned to the avodah “ka’asher tzivah Hashem,” for as a humble, G-d-fearing person, he knew that his role was to submit to the ratzon Hashem.
Following the Holocaust, there were two courses of action for survivors. Their harrowing experiences left many forlorn and broken. They lost their will to live and felt that Hashem had forsaken them. And who can blame them? They couldn’t recover.
But there were people whose emunah was stronger, and although they had lived through those same experiences as the people who became depressed and lost, they put their lives back together, established new homes, and found what to celebrate about as they went on to live productive lives of “vayidom,” neither complaining nor becoming immobilized by their multiple tragedies.
Far be it for us to comprehend what they lived through or to judge the people who were subjected to sub-human abuse, but we can learn from them. Each one of those people, from the simple Jews to the venerated leaders, is a hero to our nation. Together, they rebuilt and resurrected a decimated people. Their bodies were ripped apart, their families were destroyed, they were penniless and lonely, but their souls remained whole and pure.
When tragedy strikes, a person becomes overcome with pain and sadness and it becomes difficult to function. A person who is “koveia ittim” knows that Hashem maintains Hashgocha Protis on the world.
Whatever life does to us, we must remain whole and unbroken. Sometimes, the temptation is to fall apart and break down. If we can rise above tragic experiences in a state of “vayidom,” we can remain resolute despite setbacks. Of course, it’s easier said than done. Oftentimes, we need the help and reassurance of good people to keep us on track, but survival and endurance beat the alternative.
No matter where we are, a Jew is always surrounded by opportunities to accomplish and prevail, though each place, season and moment has a specific avodah. We are never alone if we are ensconced in the “dalet amos shel halacha,” governed by the halachos and hashkafos of the Torah.
May the clarity of emunah and bitachon lead our paths, so that we merit living as ehrliche Yidden, servants of Hashem, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Moshiach tzidkeinu bekarov.