Breathing Life Into Stones: On Aaron, Emotional Labor, and Parashat Shemini

A large collection of grey stones; Photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passage just before the beginning of Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47) explains that “Aaron and his sons did all the things which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses.” Given the events that transpired in Ki Tisa, from the construction of the golden calf to the inscription of the stone tablets to the diverse fire imagery to the highlighting of G-d’s attributes, Aaron is managing countless emotions and grappling with accountability concerns by the start of Shemini.

The focus of the following reflections will be Leviticus 10:3 which chronicles Aaron’s reaction to the fiery deaths of his sons. After Nadab and Abihu were consumed by flames after offering a “strange fire” to the Lord, an act that was not commanded of them, Aaron “held his peace.” Other translations of the text describing Aaron’s actions include “Aaron remained silent,” “Aaron kept silent,” “Aaron said nothing,” “Aaron was pricked in his heart,” and “Aaron was speechless.”

15th century Portuguese philosopher and Jewish statesman Abarbanel’s commentary on the passage explains that ”[Aaron’s] heart became like an inanimate (domem) rock, and he did not raise his voice in crying or eulogy, as would a father for [his] children; he also did not accept condolences from Moses. For he had no breath left in him, nor did he have any speech.” Other translations of Abarbanel’s commentary state that Aaron’s heart was “turned upside down” and “became like a lifeless stone.”

Jewish feminist and writer Blu Greenberg comments that “Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet, neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence. Aaron’s response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.”

Of most importance in the present reflection are Aaron’s emotional management strategy, his choice to remain silent, and the comparisons of Aaron’s heart to stone. In Stoicism (as Emotional Compression) Is Emotional Labor, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò illustrates the relationship between restrictive emotionaliy, “a reluctance to disclose or otherwise express affective states,” and emotional compression. “Emotional compression done well involves tightly managing one’s actions” and is “enabled by a particular kind of emotional self-mastery,” Táíwò writes. In the case of Aaron, his silence, speechlessness, and heart-hardening are examples of emotional compression.

Further, explains Táíwò, “emotional compression is, or is compatible with, a virtuous relationship to one’s emotions.” I argue that Aaron’s silence illustrates how, as Táíwò suggests, “it is possible to experience emotions in their fullness, and even to communicate them clearly and fully, while being guarded in the public performance of the emotions.” Throughout Exodus the reader witnesses Aaron’s psychologically and emotionally complex journey that leads him to this moment in Leviticus 10:3.

Given that, as Táíwò argues, “the social norms around stoicism and restricted emotional expression are masculine-coded forms of emotional labor” Aaron‘s response to the death of his sons is more akin to a careful and strategic emotional management than it is to mere silence in the midst of extreme loss. Aaron was constantly learning, reflecting, atoning, making sense of who he was in relationship to G-d, navigating a complicated relationship with his people, and modeling his behavior and thought-processes after those of Moses and G-d.

When Aaron held his peace and chose silence he was stone-like in the sense that he moved “from solitary individuations to ecosystems, environments, shared agencies, and companionate properties” as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says of stones in Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein says that Aaron “did not question God’s ways but accepted God’s decree” and that “his heart was at peace and his spirit calm even internally.” But does Aaron’s silence necessarily equate to a calm spirit? Could Aaron have questioned G-d’s ways in his heart?

“The smallest pebble is upon deeper contemplation a durable link to a dynamic cosmos,” Cohen says, “Active matter, stone contains energy and radiates agency. Although sometimes withdrawn from the world’s lively spaces, the lithic is most often glimpsed in boisterous landscapes. Full of relation, teeming with narrative, stone is seldom inert.” Like the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, Aaron was was enmeshed in lithic surrender. Neither lifeless nor solely hardened, Aaron’s heart was in the process of understanding and responding to countless truths at once. He was as present as he was grounded in a complex history of trauma, change, and divine interactions.

Like Cohen, I encourage us all to “explore the strange relations through which desire and agency burgeon, the networks of connection that enable the motility of lapidary objects (gems, rocks, monuments), lithic materialities (stony substances of various sorts), and earthly forces (geological, seismic) — an enmeshment of fellow travelers, landscapes, graves, elements, architectures, ruins, fictions, facts, gems.” Aaron’s emotional labor in Shemini is a solid point of departure for reflections and conversations about the many ways we respond to tragic events and, specifically, how masculine-coded forms of emotional labor are judged and understood in different contexts.

NYC-based philosophy graduate student whose work covers Genocide Studies, Repro + Enviro Justice, and Critical Race Theory. @moontwerk

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