One More Word about Silence

Photograph of Reb Mimi Feigelson
Photograph of Reb Mimi Feigelson
Reb Mimi Feigelson

Reb Mimi Feigelson, is the Mashpiah Ruchanit (Spiritual Mentor) and Lecturer of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. (WWW.ZIEGLERTORAH.ORG)
She is an Orthodox - Israeli Rabbi and an international Chassidut teacher and story teller. She was the Associate Director of Yakar, Jerusalem and Director of its Women's Beit Ha'midrash.
In 2010 Reb Mimi was recognized by The Forward as one of the fifty most influential female Rabbis in the USA, and in 2011 was accepted to the Board of Rabbi's of Southern California as an independent Orthodox rabbi. Currently Reb Mimi has embarked on pursuing a Doctorate at HUC-JIR, titled: "On the Cusp of Life: From Scared to Sacred". It is an exploration of redefining funerals and cemeteries.

posted on March 27, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

This Purim I adorned myself with a pair of pants, a skirt, a blouse and yet another skirt (draped as a toga) all bearing a black and white pattern of different sorts. I asked people to guess who or what I am. Most of the answers ranged between "a goddess" (the workman on the street after explaining to him why so many dressed up people were walking into Rabbi Artson's home on what appeared to be a regular Friday morning), "Indira Ghandi" (a doctor and his mother-in-law - five minutes apart.), and "a newspaper that had been run over" (a friendly congregant where I heard the megillah being read). To all I responded, "That's right!" Then their puzzled look, and then my smile while saying: "I'm a Rorschach test!!!" I will note that two Ziegler students actually did guess who I was with no added clues.

As the seven days after Purim still hold within them the light of Purim (as do the seven days after any holiday) I want to share with you what I now call "A Rorschach Torah". Earlier this week, I walked into Rabbi Artson's study and offered to share two new ways of looking at Aharon's silence upon the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. When I questioned his smile while listening he said, "We are so different in the way we see things". I invite you to join in on our chavruta (partnered-learning) in explaining Aharon's silence by offering four possible readings.

The Torah teaches us, at the conclusion of the inauguration of the Mishkan (tabernacle) Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon Hacohen (Aron the priest), are struck by fire because they "offered a strange fire before God which He had not commanded them" (Vayikra/Leviticus 10, 2). A close reading of verses 1-2 will note that the phrase that repeats itself three times is "Lifnei Hashem / before God" They offered their offering "before God", the fire that consumes them comes from "before God" and we're told that they die "before God." Moshe, in God's name, says "I will be sanctified in those that come near to me" and Aharon's response to this is silence (verse 3).

Rashi's interpretation gleans from the Talmud and Midrash. The fire of Nadav and Avihu was indeed alien but they were actually being punished for earlier deeds. None the less, their death was a punishment and Aharon's silence is explained as an acceptance of the Divine decree. For many years this explanation seemed to represent a pious response in the face of tragedy, and I found myself continuously hearing it particularly at funerals when the person's death seemed untimely (a child, God forbid) or an especially righteous person.

Rabbi Artson's reading can been seen hinted at in the Rashbam's (Rashi's grandson) interpretation, though differently nuanced. According to Rabbi Artson, Aharon was angry at God for what had happened, and could not serve or continue to perform any of his priestly duties. He stands in silence as a protest to God. The Rashbam says that this was indeed his feeling, but that is why Moshe says to him "I will be sanctified in those that come near to me" and thus he quiets his feelings and continues to serve.

My alternate readings are based on a story I heard twenty years ago from Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom.

Every summer Rav Kook (first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, d.1935) and Rav Charlap (chief rabbi of Yerushalayim) would go for their summer vacation to Kiryat Ya'arim (right outside of Yerushalayim). One morning after they awoke, Rav Kook went outside and had a lengthy and animated conversation with the gardener about the trees, the plants and the soil. He then returned to their room and began to recite the shacharit prayers. As the evening began to descend Rav Charlap finally found the courage to question Rav Kook regarding the unusual behavior of that morning - why didn't he begin with his morning prayers like every day and then go out and talk to the gardener?

Rav Kook responded: "When I woke up this morning I felt that if I prayed immediately I'd come to "klot hanefesh" (my soul would ascend to God) so I went outside and talked to the gardener, and only when I felt 'grounded' in this world did I come in to pray the morning prayers."

I held on to this story from the moment that I heard it, as a precious gem. Well, until one morning ten years ago. It was Chol Hamoed Sukkot and I was on my way from my home in Yerushalayim to learn with Rabbi Mickey Rosen at Yakar. The distance is about a seven minute walk. I found myself thinking about this cherished story and realizing that I actually didn't like it at all! I thought to myself: "If I were to wake up one morning and realize that when praying I would say "Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad" (Hear Israel Hashem is our God, Hashem is one) and at that moment my soul would cleave to God, would I not do it? Would I hold myself back from that moment of union that I have been yearning for my whole life? I couldn't understand why Rav Kook held back, why he denied himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God.

When I entered the sukkah, Rabbi Rosen was already learning. "Mickey, I have a problem with Rav Kook!" He looked up from his book and said, "Just sit and learn." I did, but 5 minutes later I said, "Mickey, I still have a problem with Rav Kook!" to which he replied "Just learn". But after another 10 minutes passed and another, "Mickey, I have a problem with Rav Kook" he realized that I wasn't going to be appeased and that if he didn't address my problem he would get no learning done either!

I shared with him the story and my new found dilemma. His response was immediate: "There are two ways to give a gift - one way is to give the gift that you think is the ultimate gift, the other is to give a gift that the recipient wants to receive. You think that to give your soul back to God is the greatest gift you can give Him, but what Rav Kook understood is that the gift that God wants to receive is our service here in this world. It was only when he could pray in a manner that would keep him in this world did he begin to pray."

I have been walking with the story for twenty years and with Rabbi Rosen's answer for the last ten. I cannot tell the story without it. While I honor the truth of it I cannot let go of my question: "Why did Rav Kook hold back, why did he deny himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God?" I believe I may be a descendent of Nadav and Avihu.

In Shmot (Exodus 24, 9) Nadav and Avihu ascend the mountain with Moshe, Aharon and the seventy elders. They see God. And now, in our portion, they are inside the Mishkan, yet again with the potential of "Lifnei Hashem" (before God)." How could they hold back? How could they not run in to the inner chamber with a personal offering to God?

I read Aharon's silence in one of two ways:

The first, he is envious of his sons. They were able to allow themselves that peak moment - something that he himself yearned for, but as a leader of a people had to deny himself. His silence was an acknowledgement and approval of their act. And more so, a silence of self-denial, knowing that he would never be able to allow himself such a moment. If I am a descendent of Nadav and Avihu, then Rav Kook was a descendent of Aharon Hakohen.

The second way of reading: a silence that shouts recognition of failure. As a parent he failed to teach his children how to walk out of the Holy of Holies, how to walk away from "Lifnei Hashem" (before God). He knew how to be the high priest as well as being able to make peace among people. He knew how to ascend the mountain in Shmot and in our Torah portion to enter the inside of the inside, while also maintaining the ability to interact with worldly and mundane issues. But he didn't have the answer that Rabbi Rosen had for me to offer his sons. Aaron is silent because he failed to protect his sons from their devotion to God and their spiritual quest.

Epilogue - 2016

On Purim this year I redressed myself with last year’s costume – a white dress that had my students blessings written all over it. Last year I was "the white spaces between the black letters" and they were invited to use the markers I wore as a necklace to define the "black letters" on the "white spaces" of my dress. This year I added to my costume a paper hat made from earlier drafts of my dissertation and went as "A Draft."I alluded both to myself and to the previous writings of my students, as I invited them to add to what they wrote on my dress last year.

I have dedicated much of the last seven years of my life to writing a dissertation that reclaims Jewish funerals as the last chapter of our personal lives: "On the Cusp of Life: From Scared to Sacred—Reclaiming Jewish Funerals." As we create the script of our own funeral, we are choosing "the mask we will wear" to complement our shroud-costume. The same white garment that the High Priest wears when he enters the Holy of Holies… I believe that the possibilities to mirror Aharon Hacohen and/or his sons are gifts of reflection and choices asking of us to add one more word to the "silence question." Perhaps this is where the practice of practicing silence and refraining for talking on Shabbat stems from; and as we adorn ourselves in white Shabbat clothes we adorn ourselves in silence.

Before Shabbat silence descends upon us I am taking advantage of the moment to wish us all a Shabbat shalom.