Torah Thoughts on Parashat Shemini and Yom Hashoah 5781
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Today, Thursday, Nissan 27th, April 8th, is the official Jewish commemoration of the Holocaust, known as Yom HaShoah V’Hagvurah, meaning Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. The date was selected in a resolution passed by Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, on April 12, 1951. Although the date was established by the Israeli government, it has become a day commemorated by Jewish communities and individuals around the world. The day’s official name was made formal in a law enacted by the Knesset on August 19, 1953; on March 4, 1959, the Knesset passed another law which determined that tribute to victims of the Holocaust and ghetto uprisings be paid in public observances. During this day, we remember the millions killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, as well as the courageous heroes, who resisted the Nazi machine.
This week’s parasha, Shemini, includes a tragic story that involves Aaron and his family. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, are suddenly killed in a fuzzy incident, just when they were offering incense and “an alien fire” (see Leviticus 10:1-3). After this incident, Moses tells his brother Aaron a short phrase that is not easy to understand. As a response to the incident, and perhaps also as a response to Moses’ words, the Torah offers a succinct description of Aaron’s reaction. It says, Vayidom Aharon — And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:3).
How can we understand Aaron’s reaction? Why did he remain silent? After learning that two of his sons had died, Aaron must have felt shocked. The way the children had perished surely added more suffering and incredulity to Aaron. We can certainly relate to his initial silence. What could he say in response? Are there any suitable words to say in such a situation?
In a very different plane, in terms of what our response to the Holocaust should be, there are probably two kinds of responses directly related to silence. The first is a humble and visceral silence, somewhat similar to Aaron’s silence: There can never be fitting words to express our horror in front of so much death, hate and suffering caused by the Nazi regime, its allies, and its perpetrators.
However, there is another kind of silence that should have no place in any modern healthy society. I am referring to the silence caused by indifference, fear, or ignorance. We cannot remain silent after the Holocaust, it is our sacred duty to tell the story, so the new generations are able to avoid another Holocaust.
On Yom Hashoah we have to keep a delicate balance regarding silence. On the one hand, it is important to express our horror and profound dismay in the face of the horrendous slaughter and destruction. On the other hand, we must raise our voices and tell the story of the Holocaust, the story of discrimination, hate, dehumanization, and death. All of us have a sacred duty to not remain silent this day and the rest of the year, as we remember the tragic events of the Shoah. Our voices must be heard.