Many years ago, I visited my college roommate and her son in Dallas, Texas. Jolene’s husband was on a business trip so it was the two of us caring for a very stubborn 20 month old. Aaron had voice, but no speech. His favorite and only word was no, said in differing tones, and most often to me. I was struck by his frustration at not being able to make himself understood. He would point to something, grunt and then look at me. I would usually reply with the name of the object and some little sentence about it. At which point he would hit me and say no and then give me a hug. In those three actions he was expressing anger and love. Anger that I couldn’t understand what he wanted or that I misread his question and then a hug to indicate that it didn’t matter anyway. I think that over the weekend I became more frustrated than Aaron by these interchanges. I wanted to give him voice, to give him speech so that he wouldn’t become so aggravated. And I wanted to be able to understand all the grunts and questions, what exactly a pointed finger meant, and how to make him laugh rather than hit.
The notion of voice or lack of voice plays an integral role in the first of this week’s Torah readings, Parashah Chukkat. In Numbers 20, God tells Moses and Aaron to ascent Mt. Hor so that Aaron will die there. Moses did as God commanded. He climbs the mountain with Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar, strips Aaron of his priestly garments, and places them on Eleazar who will take his father’s place. Very matter of factly, the Torah concludes: and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. Though elegant in its simplicity, the narrative leaves us thirsting for the voices of those involved. What did Moses and Aaron speak of as they climbed the mountain? Did they share memories of the years together? Did Aaron give Moses advice? Did they weep together? And what of Eleazar, Aaron’s son? Did he gather his father’s lifeless body in his arms and cry aloud to God? What was said? What did we miss?
The rabbis understood that we would desire further explication of the text, and so they wrote a tender Midrash giving voice to the silence. This Midrash, from Yalkut, envisions the scene where Moses tells his brother of his impending death.
The Midrash begins with God telling Moses that Aaron will die and then asking Moses to inform his brother:
Moses rose early in the morning and went to Aaron. Moses called, “Aaron my brother.” Aaron came down and asked, “What made you come here so early today?” Moses replied, “During the night, I studied a passage of Torah which I found troubling, and so I rose early and came to you.” “What was the matter”, Aaron asked. I don’t exactly remember spoke Moses, but bring me the Book of Genesis and we will find it together. They read through the story of creation and commented on each passage. But when they came to the creation of Adam, Moses asked, “What is one to say of Adam who brought death into the world.” And we who staved off death for the Israelite people, no doubt will face the same end. After all, how many more years have we to live?
“Not many” answered Aaron. Moses continued talking until he finally mentioned to Aaron the exact day that death would come. At that moment Aaron’s bones felt the imminence of his own demise. So he asked, “Is it because of me that you felt the matter so distressing? Moses answered yes.
What is remarkable in this Midrash is the way that Moses decides to break the news to his brother. He doesn’t run to him and shout you are going to die. Rather, he understands that the message must be given with care and love. Moreover, the entire message so pains Moses, that he does not give it in his own voice, he relies on the voice of tradition to lead him. Moses and Aaron learn Torah together. Moses forms his news in a text-based inquiry. Torah becomes Moses’ voice, and as he asks “what is one to say about Adam who brought death into the world”, we can almost sense his trembling as he faces his own mortality, realizing that he is not far behind his brother. Thus the Torah, God’s voice through the ages, helps to give expression to the ineffable, the unknowable. Whereas silence may be appropriate at times, we need to search deeply to hear God’s voice so as to shed light upon our darkest moments.
Just as the Torah gives Moses and Aaron a vehicle for voice in our Midrash, so it can lend us a voice of understanding throughout our lives. George Steiner writes of the Torah, “The text is home; each commentary a return. When one reads, when by virtue of commentary, he or she makes of his reading a dialogue then that person becomes the Shepard of being. Turning to the text allows Moses and Aaron to encounter mortality. Turning to the text allows us to express a voice that may have been stifled, to begin discussing the difficult issues of being human. It is in the silence of this narrative that we begin to hear the voice of God.
My mother shared with me a remarkable story about one of her introduction to Judaism students. This specific young woman, mother to a year-old-son, was thinking of converting to give her son a Jewish upbringing. She attended every class, but never spoke, even during small group work. Toward the end of the sessions, the class began reading Parashah Toledot from the Book of Genesis. At the words, “there were two nations in her womb and they were struggling”, the young woman began to cry. She raised her hand and told of her struggle with infertility and the joy she experienced when she found out she would have twins. She told of the churning in her womb and how she was reassured that her babies were fine. And how, when the twins were born, one was dead. The woman spoke of her anger, her own sense of guilt and responsibility and her relationship with God. Long after the class ended, this woman talked and my mother listened. As the conversation ended, my mother asked the woman why she had not spoken earlier. The woman’s response, “I was afraid of what I might say. That it would be wrong and people would think that I was stupid, but after reading the Torah for tonight, my voice came from deep inside, and I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I can see why people have read the Torah for thousands of years.”
May we engage in the study of Torah and allow the text to give voice to our inner thoughts and emotions.