Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a world-renowned trauma expert, and a colleague of Dr. David Pelcovitz. Dr. Pelcovitz relates a story where Dr. van der Kolk showed him a picture of a man’s brain that was taken using an fMRI, a machine which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow in different brain regions. This particular image was taken while the man was having a flashback to a traumatic experience of being caught in the stairwell of the World Trade Center on 9/11. At that moment, there was absolutely no brain activity in the part of the brain dedicated to language, known as Broca’s area. The memory of the trauma rendered him speechless. Only after therapy, where Dr. van der Kolk helped the man give words to the pain, did later images show brain activity in the language centers.
Perhaps, Dr. Pelcovitz suggests, this vignette can help us understand Aharon’s silence in Parshat Shemini. After they brought a “strange” fire on the alter, a fire burst forth and consumed Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Moshe then tells Aharon, “This is what Hashem meant when He said: Through those near to Me I shall be sanctified, And gain glory before all the people.” The verse then ends, “Va-yidom Aharon” - “And Aaron was silent” (Vayikra 10:3).
How are we to understand Aharon’s silence? Does silence mean a lack of crying, a lack of speech, or both? Does it mean that he couldn’t say anything, didn’t have any urge to say anything, or that he desperately wanted to cry out but controlled himself? What exactly would he have said and why did he feel like he shouldn’t? What was his facial expression like? Did he just control his speech but “leaked” out his emotion or was he stoic in his expression as well?
Ramban assumes that upon witnessing their deaths, Aharon started weeping. It is only after Moshe said that “Through those near to Me I shall be sanctified” that he was silent. This assumes that Aharon experienced a natural emotional reaction and was subsequently consoled. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg disagrees, and says that if he was crying and then went silent, the word used should have been “vayishtok.” “Vayidom” connotes an absence of any noise. According to Rabbi Mecklenburg, this reflects that Aharon accepted God’s decree without an ounce of conflict or even a slight desire to question.
The Chofetz Chaim suggests that it wasn’t just Aharon’s voice that was absent protest, but this was reflected in his facial expression as well. The word vayidom, he argues, is related to the word domem, an inanimate object. His face was like a rock, lacking even a hint of negative expression.
The latter two commentaries align well with Rashi, who quotes the Talmud (Zevachim 115b) that states that Aharon was rewarded for his silence. The question is, why is silence rewarded here? Why couldn’t Aharon cry out in mourning? Some look to Aharon as a paradigm for how all should react to tragedy: Accept God’s judgement and don’t question “why.” Alternatively, Rashbam suggests that Aharon’s silence is not indicative that one should not demonstrate emotion upon the loss of loved ones. Rather, this was a onetime exception, requiring a higher level—and perhaps super-human level—of self-control. Aharon was called on to (at least temporarily) suppress his emotions as he was needed for the public sanctification of the Tabernacle.
As a rather bold alternative, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin suggests that Aharon chose silence as his way of dealing with loss. Moshe attempted to console Aharon by telling him that God is sanctified by those who are close to him, meaning that Nadav and Avihu were precious to God. Yet, Rabbi Goldin suggests, that in Aharon’s silence he is responding: “Moshe, there are times when words do not suffice, when they are, in fact, hurtful. I reject your attempt to explain the inexplicable. No words or comfort will assuage my heart’s deep pain. I am willing to accept God’s justice, but I know that I will never fully understand. For me, in the face of overwhelming loss there is only one meaningful response: silence.”
Despite their variations, the aforementioned opinions all assume that Aharon chose to stay silent. Dr. Pelcovitz, based on his interchange with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, suggests that maybe Aharon didn’t choose to stay silent, but his silence was a natural reaction to the trauma of witnessing his two sons dying. Broca’s area in his brain was lifeless. He literally could not speak. There were no words.
Perhaps the range of explanations is indicative of another important lesson that Dr. Pelcovitz emphasizes. It is normal for different people to react differently to distress. There is no one right way to cope. While we may never be exactly sure what Aharon’s inner thoughts and emotions were, the diverse possibilities model and validate various ways one can respond to tragedy.