Soon after his service as High Priest in the Tabernacle had begun, Aaron watched with certain horror as his sons, Nadab and Abihu, brought an offering that caused a fire to come forth from God that killed them. In response to what happened, Moses told Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and assert My authority before all the people.”
All we learn here about and from Aaron is that he was silent. Why?
Our first clue comes from the incredibly divergent views commentators have had over the centuries about what happened to the sons and why.
Some sages believed the sons were intoxicated and handled the fire and incense related to the sacred work at the altar carelessly and irresponsibly. Others contended that the sons brought secular or profane coals and/or some form of alien fire inconsistent with God’s instructions. Yet others suggested that the sons were overly ambitious or perhaps egotistical in acting on their own and with inadequate direction.
On the other hand, some sages defended the sons, saying they came too near but were holy, and that they had to perish but were honored and indeed grieved over by God. This interpretation was based, in part, on Moses’ words.
Yet, as strong a tradition has built up around this positive interpretation, it hasn’t become the prevailing view, principally because the Bible tells us that the sons acted in a manner contrary to God’s instructions.
So, what do we learn from all this divergence of opinion? I think we learn that there was likely wrong in what the sons did, but their awful demise was mostly mysterious to Aaron. And Moses’ comment surely compounded that sense of mystery. In the face of this mystery, the pious Aaron chose first to be silent.
I believe we should view Moses’ words as relating to Aaron, not the sons. He, as the High Priest, would be near to God, and it will be to him that God will show Himself holy and assert the Divine self to the people. Indeed, shortly after this episode, God comes straight to Aaron for the first time, not through Moses, to instruct him and inspire him to teach the people.
In Aaron’s silence, we see a man who, even though in grief and loss, has atoned in quiet, grown in strength and humility, and shown himself fully committed, even in pain and the mystery, to serve God through God-directed action.
We learn much from Aaron’s silence.