The Torah portion of Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) should represent the heights of the Israelites’ relationship with God. The name of the portion means “the eighth,” referring to the eighth day after the consecration of the mishkan, the Tabernacle. Eight is a number of super-completion–seven plus one, the days of creation plus the beginning of a new cycle–and it was on this day that the operation of the mishkan finally and fully took hold, with the inauguration of the kohanim, the priests.

But immediately after this moment, everything comes to a crashing and silent halt:

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Lev. 10:1-2)

What precisely did Nadav and Avihu do? What was their eish zarah, their strange, unauthorized fire? The Rabbinic tradition offers a number of different thoughts, some of them metaphorical: perhaps they were drunk (and thus Moses’s instruction immediately afterwards that the priests may not drink wine while on duty); perhaps they were haughty, and arrogantly taught the law in front of their elders, Moses and Aaron. Perhaps, as Rabbi David Weiss Halivni used to comment every year at my old shul in New York, the eish zarah was the study of foreign thought and philosophy.

Whatever the case, the story ultimately tells us something that perhaps escapes our ability to capture in words, about the fire of closeness. For the Torah continues:

Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said:
“‘Among those who approach me
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.'”
Aaron remained silent.
The approach to God is one of playing with fire. Like all of our most intimate relationships, it contains a paradox: While we feel an intense sense of closeness, even a symbiosis, with someone with whom we are intimate, we also know that precisely because of that trust and closeness, there are some things that we can’t say. If we know another so well, we learn that we have a responsibility not to say certain things, even though our relationship is characterized by an intense honesty at the heart of love.

So too, perhaps, with the Divine. The last line of the passage above, “And Aaron was silent,” has been taken to mean that Aaron–the man of words, in comparison to his brother Moses–accepted the tragic loss of his sons. But as my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss was fond of saying, this passage also reminds us that often times, in our relationship with God as with humans, there are moments that transcend words, moments when words are wholly and fully inadequate, and when we must simply be, and be with one another, in silence.

Shabbat shalom.