D’Var Torah By: Jonathan K. Crane

Children, and teenagers especially, are often told to think about what they say, and how they say it. Instead of speaking cavalierly, it’s best to speak carefully and in a measured manner. In fact, perhaps it’s best to listen more than speak. This is a lesson many of us could benefit from, and this week’s parashah could help us.

Over two thousand years ago, the sage Hillel taught: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humanity and drawing them close to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). Emulating Aaron in these ways would surely be admirable, yet we would be mistaken to think that these qualities and pursuits are all that Aaron offers us. There was something else about him that frequently goes underappreciated: Aaron used his voice sparingly and strategically. He spoke gently to entreat others to reconsider their actions, and he also spoke forcefully when he needed to convey a message or protect his family.

To understand how Aaron used his voice in these ways, we can use Rashi’s distinction between saying (omer) and speaking (dibur): the former applies to expressions of supplication (lashon taḥnunim), while the latter involves harsh language (lashon kashah) or strong language (lashon ‘az) (Rashi at Numbers 12:1 and Leviticus 10:19). Aaron used his voice in both ways.

The first time Aaron said something was in this week’s story about the Golden Calf. After the people implored him to make them a god, Aaron said (omer), “Take off your jewelry…and bring it to me” (Exodus 32:2). After the Golden Calf appeared, Aaron said (omer), “Tomorrow shall be a festival for Adonai!” (Exodus 32:5). And then in response to Moses’ anger when he saw this idolatrous scene, Aaron said (omer), “Let not my lord be enraged…” (Exodus 32:22-24).

The next time the Torah records Aaron’s words after the episode with Golden Calf, he said (omer) to Moses after God afflicted Miriam with a severe skin condition: “O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly…” (Numbers 12:11-12).

In all these instances of saying (omer) something, Aaron used his voice to encourage others to reconsider what they were doing (in the case of the Golden Calf), or what they were not stopping (in the case of Miriam’s skin condition). And that is all Aaron said.

Aaron also speaks in the dibur sense, but only three times: when he told the people about God’s plan to liberate them; when he relayed Moses’ instructions for the Israelites to advance to the wilderness to witness God’s response to their worries about food insecurity; and when his sons, Eliezer and Ithamar, bungled a sacrifice (Exodus 4:30, 16:10, and Leviticus 10:19).

The last exchange occurred just moments after Aaron’s other two sons, Nadav and Abihu, were killed for giving an impromptu incense offering.

When Aaron spoke in the dibur sense, he was either conveying someone else’s message or protecting his children. When Aaron said something in the omer sense, he was entreating others to reconsider their actions. Otherwise, Aaron was silent. He was a quiet leader who used his voice infrequently, yet strategically.

What does it mean that Aaron was so quiet? Why do our earliest sages encourage us to be like him? Perhaps it is to encourage us to be quiet so we can listen to others and ourselves. Maybe we are to be like Aaron in observing more and assuming less. Perhaps we are to, like Aaron, exemplify gentle but fervent advocacy.

Aaron’s unobtrusiveness invites us to wonder whether we, too, are quiet enough to ensure that our words are words of consequence. Given this, maybe I should stop here and listen for a while…