My great grandmother, Flora Grünberger, loved ice-skating. In the winter months, when the Oder river would freeze over, she’d take her granddaughter, my mom, bundle up, and go out into the cold. They’d put on their special shoes, hold hands and have fun. When my Zionist grandfather, fearing new regime, opted to schlep her daughter and beloved granddaughter to Palestina, she wasn’t about to join. For one, there were not able to get enough “certifikatim” (immigration certificates); and besides, what nonsense! She was not about to leave her lifelong “homeland”, where her husband, my great-grandfather, was a decorated WWI sniper; nothing can possibly happen in “cultural” Germany! let alone to her!!
Today, Yom HaSho’a 2018 I lit a candle in her memory. I thought of my grandma, trying to make a life in the sandy red soil of the Sharon, learning to care for chicks and oranges, live under the hot sun, grinding her teeth over the strange, rocky language, all the while, the gnawing fear as no letters arrive, then horrifying news of what’s happening in Europe, what might be happening to anyone’s relatives.
Silence was also what accompanied the surviving relatives. My nuclear family all arrived in Israel in the 1930’s with the “5th Aliya”, so I made that assumption that this is so for “everybody”. For example, I knew that my aunt (by marriage) left Berlin in 1935. Clearly, where would one go? I assumed she too, came to Israel then.
It was not until I was 32 years old and a mother to three children already that I learned the “rest of the story”. I was in Israel for my uncle’s shiv’a when my aunt was asked when she came to Israel. Me, knowing “everything” about the family’s history, jumped and said, 1935! My aunt looked at me puzzled: ‘no, that’s when we left Germany’. ‘Yes, so? 1936’? I thought, how long does it take to get here? what’s so hard to calculate?
She thought for a long moment, already realizing what her answer will do, then said, ‘1949’.
‘What???’ she shook her head, yes. ‘But wait’ I tried to save the story; my version of the story, ‘but didn’t you leave Berlin in 1935’? still trying to change what’s about to be revealed.
‘We went to Holland’.
‘Holland?? In 1935?? That’s not good! What happened’??
‘Well…. yes, things were not so good… nu, maspik, enough with the boring stories. Tea anyone? I have an excellent cake’…
This week is usually accompanied by the loudest silence in the Torah.
In the Torah portion of Shmini, in the heart of the Torah, we read the horrific story of Aaron’s sons, on what should have been, a proud and joyful day (Leviticus 10:1-3):
וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
After extensive preparations. As the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was built and set for worship, Aaron and his sons, in their finest clothing, begin the dedication ceremony. But in the midst of this festive day, Aarons older sons die. And Aaron, following Moses’ explanation, is silent.
What is this silence? The Rashbam (1085-1158) thinks that Aaron held back, didn’t cry and didn’t mourn. Ramban (1194-1270) however thinks that Aaron was crying in a loud voice, and then, kept quiet, in order to show the people he accepts G-d’s actions, and has no doubts.
The Hasidic master, “Tif’eret Shlomo” taught: about Aaron is says “vayidom Aaron” – And Aaron was silent, which is a great measure, but King David says: למען יזמרך כבוד ולא ידום – That my being may sing praise for Your sake endlessly, and not be silent (Psalms 30:13). Whether in times of joy or sorrow, King David would play his harp and sing.
Someone is painfully missing from the Aaron story: Elisheva bat Aminadav, his wife. What happened to her after her private holocaust, losing her two elders to “holy fire”? And what happened to Aaron in his (or their) later years? Did the outward stoic presence finally seep in and fill him with true acceptance and comfort, or did he continue to be haunted by what happened, what would have happened if only, making sure his shell won’t crack? Could he sit with grandchildren one day, and share with them??
Silence is commendable and powerful. For some of us, is a great tool to express and process, but the world was created through words. That’s were creativity and healing was found. May we learn those too.