Silence = Fury
If one could listen to the soundtrack of this parashah of inaugurating the Mishkan (Tabernacle), it would probably be a great cacophony. Animals and cheering crowds, fire and singing. But then there is the silence of Aaron when he learns of the death of two of his sons. Of all the sounds of this parashah, the deafening silence of Aaron pierces our ears.
Aaron’s sons die as they enter the holy space during the inauguration to offer incense that did not belong. In the aftermath of the event Aaron functions in a double role: he is both their father and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) on whose watch this happened. Aaron responds with silence.
The haftarah is set in the early days of David as king over Israel. He is creating a new concept: a capital city. Jerusalem is being developed into the seat of the government, but that is insufficient. David seeks to make it the religious center as well, and to that end decides to relocate the Holy Ark from its temporary dwelling to Jerusalem. On the way the Ark begins to slip off the cart and Uzza who has helped care for the Ark reaches out to stop it. He dies on the spot. David, who has orchestrated the grand event, is furious.
Just as Aaron’s silence offers the opportunity for many understandings, so does David’s fury. The reader and the commentators are left wondering about the reason and the object of that fury.
R. Joseph Kaspi insists that “Heaven forbid that David was infuriated by the LORD’s action! Rather, he was infuriated by Uzza’s action which caused the LORD to do what He did.” (II Samuel 6:8). If it was so obvious that David was not upset with God’s action, perhaps R. Joseph Kaspi would not have felt a need to point that out…
But there is another possibility, as explained by Malbim: David understood that they had not handled the Ark with proper respect by placing it on a wagon and was upset with himself for this failure and all that resulted from it. Malbim came to this understanding by reading the Hebrew carefully, noticing the language that did not have an object for the anger, and so concluded that it was directed inward.
This changes the story a bit. David does not direct the blame elsewhere; he does some painful internal reckoning. In the parallel account in I Chronicles 15 it is stressed that when the Ark is finally brought to Jerusalem, it is not placed on a wagon but rather carried on the shoulders of the Levites. Some lesson was learnt.
This haftarah invites us, the readers, to re-evaluate the events of the parashah and reconsider our understanding of Aaron’s silence. There was undoubtedly great pain in that silence, just as in David’s fury, but the cause and the meaning of the silence might be more complex than initially meets the eye.