All of today’s Torah readings are from Parashat Acharei Mot, the weekly Torah reading that, at least chronologically, follows the deaths of Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu. Those deaths occur in the tenth chapter of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus), but the Yom Kippur readings begin in the seventeenth chapter. 

Nadav and Avihu bring a “strange fire” into the sanctuary, and are killed by a fire from God. Moshe says to Aharon “This is what the Eternal meant in saying ‘Through those near to Me I shall be sanctified, and am given honor before all the people.’”  

Rashi explains this to mean “I always believed that when God said that, God was referring to you or to me. But in coming near to the Eternal One, and in giving their lives for it, your sons were greater than either of us!” 

Moshe does his best to comfort his brother by giving meaning to his sons’ deaths, and holding them up as holy people. Aharon’s reaction is a loaded, weighty, silence. 

Vayidom Aharon. 

At the same time that he puts these words of comfort into Moshe’s mouth, Rashi, drawing from the Midrash, still goes on to describe the sins that Nadav and Avihu committed that led to their deaths: They entered the Sanctuary drunk. They taught Torah laws in their teacher’s presence, taking honor away from him and to themselves.  

Vayidom Aharon. Aharon was silent. 

Aharon, on the other hand, is said to have been greatly rewarded for his silence. He kept silent from grieving. He did not respond in tears. He did not tear his clothes, or go through any of the steps of mourning that Judaism normally encourages. Instead, he goes on to learn the service of Yom Kippur that he, and all future high priests, would perform.  

Between the account of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Parashat Shmini, chapter 10, and that of Acharei Mot in chapter 17, the Torah digresses and teaches us general laws of purity and of ritual contamination. When we come back to Acharei Mot, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 20, 1) tells us: 

Rabbi Shimon began: “‘All may happen to all; the same may happen to the righteous and to to the wrong-doer, to the good and pure, and to the impure…. (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] 9:2)’ ‘To the righteous:’ These are Aharon’s sons, as it is written of them: ‘In peace and in integrity he walked with me (Malakhi 2:1). ‘To the wrong-doer’ This is Korach and his followers…. Both brought offerings, and both were burned.’” 

After the other rabbis’ teachings that Nadav and Avihu were killed for their arrogance, for their lack of respect for the holy, for entering the most holy place drunk, Rabbi Shimon tells us that they were righteous people, and that God took them just the same as God took Korach, who started a rebellion against Moshe simply out of desire for power. Rabbi Shimon bases his teaching on Kohelet, the megillah that opens up saying “Hevel havalimhakol havel! Vanity of vanity, all is vanity!” 

Rashi brings the midrashim that give an explanation, that show that somehow, Nadav and Avihu earned their fate. Our prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, that tells us that our fates are written on Rosh Hashannah and sealed today, on Yom Kippur, but that repentance, prayer, and tzeddakkah can overturn a bad ruling against us. The theme of this day is that our deeds are directly tied to what becomes of us!  

What’s Aharon’s answer to all of this? Which side does he fall on? When he loses his two older sons, and then has to serve the God who killed his sons, and make expiation for the sins of the entire people Israel by risking his own life to enter the Holy of Holies according to God’s very specific instructions on Yom Kippur, how does he see what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Does he side with Rashi, who says that it was because of their arrogance and drunkenness, or with Rabbi Shimon, who says that everyone, the best and the worst of us, meet the same fate? 

His answer is silence. Vayidom Aharon.  

In silence, saying nothing about his grief, nothing about the loss of his children, he goes about his duties as Kohen Gadol, as high priest. He takes the fine-ground incense to the incense altar. He puts his and his family’s sins onto a bull, and slaughters it. He puts the people’s sins onto a goat, and sends it hurtling over a cliff, and offers another up as a sin offering for the people. He sprinkles the blood. He changes his vestments.  

We are, of course, commanded to offer blessings to the Eternal even on those bad things that happen to us. We are not, however, commanded to swallow our grief. Maybe the spiritual exercise of the sacrifices was Aharon’s processing of grief. He made offerings to the unfathomable One, not trying to justify what had happened, as he let the sacrificial blood run instead of his own tears. He had no choice but to acknowledge his own deepest truth; that he was a facilitator of his people’s relationship with the Eternal, with the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Source and Essence of all being. 

We cannot understand Aharon fully. He was silent. But everything that happens on Yom Kippur does happen in the shadow of the story of Nadav, Avihu, and their father. We can focus on Rashi’s view of the day, being one of teshuvah, because our actions do have consequences, some obvious, and some unforeseen, or indirect. What we do matters. That certainly seems to be the theme of the prayers.  

We can also focus on Rabbi Shimon’s view, Kohelet’s view, that the same fate awaits the reshaim and the tzaddikim, the worst among us and the best among us. The world itself is not permanent, and certainly we ourselves are not. There is a way of acknowledging that truth which allows us to cling to what is beyond this impermanent world, and to look at our lives as they play out before the Divine. The same prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, that emphasizes the connections between our actions and our fates, also gives voice to this idea. Humanity is likened to “a passing shadow, like a dream, it shall fly away: And You are the living, everlasting King!” 

Can we hold onto those two seemingly disparate views? That our actions are of ultimate consequence, on the one hand, and that we are nothing but dewdrops on the ocean on the other? Can this day of fasting and intensive penitential prayer bring us to a full appreciation of both of those truths? Can we carry Aharon’s unspoken grief as we hear about the High Priest’s duties on Yom Kippur, and can we share his submission to the Ultimate, however mixed and intense his feelings may have been?  

Vayidom Aharon. And Aaron was silent. 

Ve’atah hu melech el chai vekayam! And You are the living, everlasting King! 

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