In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
-- Martin Niemoller
Throughout history it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.
-- Haile Selassie
As the Jewish world prepares itself to commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), to remember the 6,000,000; as hundreds of thousands of innocent black Africans continue to be slaughtered in Sudan and Chad; as Jews in Israel continue to be threatened by nations determined to destroy it, and as abuse and injustice often take root in our own communities due to the silence of good people, a stirring Midrash on this week's portion ought to be reflected upon.
This week's Torah portion relates the tragic episode of the premature death of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu.
On the day that the Tabernacle in the desert was erected and Aaron's four sons were inaugurated as priests, the two oldest children entered into the tabernacle and did not come out alive (1).
The Talmud (2) relates the following story to explain the cause of their death:
"It once happened that Moses and Aaron were walking along the road and Nadav and Avihu (Aaron's two sons) were walking behind them, and all Israel was walking behind them. Said Nadav to Avihu, 'When will these two old men die and you and I will lead the generation?' Thereupon G-d said to them: 'We shall see who will bury whom!'"
A Cryptic Midrash
Now, this story of Aaron's two sons, engendered a cryptic Midrash. It reads like this (3):
"When Job heard about the death of the two sons of Aaron, he was seized by
tremendous fear. It was this event that compelled Job's best friend, Elihu, to state (4): "Because of this my heart trembles and jumps from its place."
This Midrash seems strange. Why did the Nadan-Avihu episode inspire such profound fear in the heart of Job's friend?
Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulaei, an 18th century great sage and mystic known in short as the Chida (5), presents the basis of the following interpretation on this obscure Midrash. He quotes it (6) "in the name of the Sages of Germany."
The Talmud relates (7) that Job served on the team of advisors to Pharaoh, the emperor of Egypt. The other members of the team were Balaam and Jethro. When the Jewish population in Egypt began to increase significantly, developing from a small family of seventy members into a large nation, Pharaoh, struck by the fear that this refugee group would ultimately pose a threat to his empire, consulted his three advisors on how to deal with the "Jewish problem."
Balaam chose a tyrannical approach. He suggested that Pharaoh drown all Jewish baby boys and force every adult Jewish male into slave labor.
Job remained silent. He neither condemned the Jews to exertion and death, nor defended their rights to life.
Jethro was the only one among the three who objected Balaam's plan of oppression. To escape the wrath of Pharaoh, who enthusiastically embraced Balaam's "final solution," Jethro fled from Egypt to Midian, where he lived for the remainder of his years.
The Talmud (7) also relates the consequences of the advisors' respective behaviors. Balaam was slain many decades later during a Jewish military campaign in the Middle East (8). Job was afflicted by various maladies and personal tragedy (9), while Jethro, the exclusive voice of morality in the Egyptian palace, merited not only Moses as a son-in-law but also descendants who served as members of the Jewish Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem, loyally representing the Jewish principles of justice and morality (10).
What went through Job's mind after this incident? Did Job consider himself morally inferior to his colleague Jethro who, in an act of enormous courage, stood up to a superpower king and protested against his program of genocide? Did Job return home that evening and say to his wife, "I discovered today that I am a spineless and cowardly politician who will sell his soul to the devil just to retain his position in the government."
Job, like so many of us in similar situations, did not entertain that thought even for a moment. On the contrary, Job considered himself the pragmatist and Jethro the idiot.
"What did Jethro gain of speaking the full truth?" Job must have thought to himself. "He lost his position and was forced to flee. He acted as a fanatical zealot. I, Job, by employing my savvy diplomatic skills and remaining silent, continue to serve as Pharaoh's senior advisor and thus will be able to assist the Jewish people, subtly and unobtrusively, from within the governmental ranks of power." For decades, Job walked the corridors of the Egyptian palace saturated with a feeling of self-righteousness and contentment -- till the day he heard of the death of the sons of Aaron.
Job's Shattering Discovery
When Job inquired as to what might have caused the premature death of these two esteemed men, he was answered with the famous Talmudic episode quoted in the beginning of this essay:
"It once happened that Moses and Aaron were walking along the road and Nadav and Avihu (Aaron's two sons) were walking behind them, and all Israel were walking behind them. Said Nadav to Avihu, 'When will these two old men die and you and I will lead the generation?' Thereupon G-d said to them: 'We shall see who will bury whom!'"
Job was astounded. "I can fully understand," Job said (11), "why Nadav was punished. It was he who uttered these disgusting words. But why was his brother Avihu punished? He did not say anything (12)."
"Avihu?" came the reply. "He was punished because he remained silent (13)."
Because when something important is happening, silence is a lie.
(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Purim 1971 (14)).
1) Leviticus 10:1-3; 16:1.
2) Sanhedrin 52a.
3) The Midrash is quoted in Nachal Kedumim and Chomas Anach by the Chida (see footnotes 5-6); in the book "Midrash Pliah," and in Pardas Yosef to Leviticus 16:1. - See Vayikrah Rabah 20:5 (and commentaries of Matnois Kehunah, Yefah Toar and Rashash).
4) Job 37:1.
5) 1724-1806. The Chida, author of more than fifty volumes on Torah thought, was one of the great Torah luminaries of his day. He resided in Israel, Egypt and Italy. This year marks the 200 anivversary since his passing.
6) In his book Chomas Anach (However, see there for his refutation of this interpretation). This answer is quoted also in Pardas Yosef ibid and in "Midrash Pliah - Chedah Upelpul."
7) Soteh 11a.
8) Numbers 31:8.
9) See the biblical book of Job chapters 1-2. Job, just like Balaam, received a punishment measure for measure. One cries when he suffers even though he knows that doing so will not alleviate his suffering. Why? Because pain hurts. This keenly demonstrated to Job his state of moral apathy. For if he were truly perturbed by the plight of the Jewish victims, he would have voiced his objection to Balaam's plan even if he thought that protesting it wouldn't bear any results, just as one cries out in pain upon suffering though the cry will not help the situation (See Chidushei HaGriz by Rabbi Yitzchak Ze'av Soloveitchik to Soteh ibid.).
10) Jethro, too, was rewarded measure for measure (see Toras HaKenaos to Soteh ibid.).
11) It is unnecessary to assume that the Chida's intent is that Job actually heard of this Talmudic tradition and posed the following question. As is the case with many Midrashim, certain statements and episodes may be understood symbolically. Possibly, the Midrash is conveying to us its perspective on moral silence by employing the images of Job, and Aaron's two sons, as examples.
12) This question is raised (independently of this entire discussion) in Birchas Shmuel to Soteh ibid.
13) Cf. Eyoon Yaakov to Ein Yaakov Soteh ibid.
14) Sichos Kodesh 5731 vol. 1 pp. 560-568.
Email the author: YYJ@Algemeiner.org