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A Time to Keep Silent…and A Time to Speak

Sunday, 11 April 2010

וידם אהרן Vayidom Aharon. “And Aaron was silent.”

Taken from this past week’s parasha, Parashat Shemini, Aaron’s reaction to the sudden fiery death of his sons at God’s Directive is simultaneously shocking and understandable.

An individual remaining silent is not normally cause for notice by the Torah. Typically there is far more focus on what is said by our ancestors. Our Sages struggled to find meanings in Aaron’s silence. Among the many voices from our Rabbinic literature are Rashi, his grandson RaSHBaM, and the RaMBaN.

But what I find striking is the word choice. Vayishtok, also meaning “to be silent,” would have been a potential option. But words have nuances that can render them unable to be used interchangably without losing the true meaning. For Aaron did more than simply keeping quiet, as the word vayishtok suggests. Aaron’s silence was, as described by Blu Greenberg in an essay included in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence.”

There are points in the human experience that defy response. When there is simply nothing that can be said. Death, in our Tradition, is one of those times.

When someone experiences the death of a loved one, we yearn to bring them comfort. We struggle to find “the right words.” Except… there are no right words. And it is for this reason that Jewish Law instructs us not to speak to the mourner. Rather, we should, as God instructed Ezekiel (24:17), sigh in silence. Few of us, however, are comfortable in silence and so we search for words.

Which leads me to…the Five Worst Things said to us during my Grandma’s Shiva.

5. I’m just shocked! I mean, weren’t you just shocked! This is just…shocking!
Actually, no. She had been diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumour. We knew she was going to die. Sure, we didn’t know when. Not at first. But it was very clear, in those last days, that she was dying. We watched as her soul began to separate from her body. She was ready. And, to the best extent possible, we were ready too.

4. I know exactly how you feel.
So here’s the thing; you don’t. You mean well when you say this. And you might have had an experience that was similar. But no two relationships are the same. As such, these words are meaningless and sound cliched.

3. Thank God she is now in a better place.
Really? What better place can there be away from her beloved Beryl (my papa), her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren?

2. I never even knew my grandmother. You can’t imagine how much worse my loss is because of that.
I realize how fortunate I was to know all four of my grandparents and so I cannot imagine what that absence is like. However, didn’t some wise man say “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”? I am not mourning an abstract absence; I am mourning the absence of an actual presence. Plus, this is not a competition.

And the number one Worst Thing said…

1. is so shocking that it has been removed to protect the guilty.
I mean, it was just unbelievable. Someone actually said this. To my sister. At our grandmother’s seudat ha’avra’a. For the life of me, I cannot comprehend how anyone would think that these were words of consolation.

Go to the mourner. Allow your physical presence to provide the comfort. Do not fear silence for it the silence of mourning provides healing space. Let our Tradition be your guide.

When the wife of Rabbi Mana died, his colleage, Rabbi Abin, came to pay a condolence call. Rabbi Mana inquired, “Are there any words of Torah you would like to offer us in our time of grief?” Rabbi Abin answered, “At times like this, the Torah takes refuge in silence.” (Kohelet Rabbah on 3:5)

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, 11 April 2010 10:37 pm

    I lost a friend to cancer last December, and right after the funeral people started saying, “She’s in a better place now…” All I could think was no she’s not! She was only 35 and had a husband and mother and friends who love her so much, being dead is not better! But I think people just don’t know what to say and they think they’re being kind…

    And regarding what someone said to your sister, WOW!

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Monday, 12 April 2010 12:39 pm

      I know they think they are being kind. But my goodness…

      On the bright side, that comment to my sister provided some much-needed comic relief. It was so outrageous that we just had to laugh.

  2. Sunday, 11 April 2010 10:39 pm

    I know exactly how you feel. Ok, not exactly, but I can relate. At the funeral someone asked my grandfather to talk about the root canal he had two days earlier. That was just one of the “smart” comments.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Monday, 12 April 2010 12:40 pm

      A root canal?? Wow. That would have made my list. Would have bumped off #5, I think.

      • Monday, 12 April 2010 1:21 pm

        Yep, a root canal. Shortly after that comment any time people would try to speak to my grandfather he’d pretend to go to sleep.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Monday, 12 April 2010 1:30 pm

        OK — that is just funny. I think I’d like your grandfather 🙂

  3. Nancy D. permalink
    Sunday, 11 April 2010 10:54 pm

    When my father died unexpectedly from an infection he contracted in the hospital, many, many, MANY of my Christian friends said, “Well, it was God’s will.” No it wasn’t. Thanks for this reminder of things NOT to say to a mourner and how powerful the notion that “…Torah takes refuge in silence.” Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Monday, 12 April 2010 12:41 pm

      I think it is normal to seek meaning in the midst of tragedy. But maybe further down the line. Not in the very BEGINNING of the mourning process.

  4. Monday, 12 April 2010 2:43 am

    Beautiful post. Our community lost an 8 year old girl last fall (after a 4-year battle with cancer). A friend of mine was at the shiva and said that after a few minutes of silence, the father and the other men began to sing niggunim. Because there was nothing to say.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Monday, 12 April 2010 12:43 pm

      What a tragic loss. My grandmother’s death, while very sad and keenly felt, was no tragedy. She had eighty-six full years. Filled with love and adventure. She was buried by her lifelong love and three generations of progeny. Nothing can compare to the horror of burying a child.

      I am moved by the image of a room filled with mourners responding to the pain with the keening of the soul.

  5. Lael permalink
    Monday, 12 April 2010 10:21 am

    OMG, your sister…..Hopefully she knows her grandmother really didn’t feel this way. What possessed someone to say that??? And what a thing to have to recover from when you already have to recover from something so hard as the death of your grandmother…:( ack.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Monday, 12 April 2010 12:45 pm

      Well…to tell you the truth…My grandmother really wanted to see her married. But she would never say that her life was incomplete or that she didn’t find true happiness simply because PG isn’t married.

  6. meira permalink
    Monday, 12 April 2010 7:29 pm

    So so sorry about your grandma . . . it’s sad no matter what the circumstances.

    Can surmise what was said to your sister. Oy!

    When my sister passed away, someone came up to me at the visitation (uh, yeah, my sister became Catholic before she died), looked me up and down, said, “Oh, you’re just the sister,” and walked away. Then my mother introduced me to her friends saying, “This is the one I have left.”

    Good times . . . .

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 13 April 2010 12:00 am

      Thanks. It was a frightfully difficult time. Looking back, it seems like one very long, bad dream. Poppyseed can’t talk about her without starting to cry. Truthfully, if I think about her too long, I start to cry too.

      “…just the sister”? Unbelievable.

      I didn’t know your sister had died. I’m sorry.

  7. Monday, 12 April 2010 8:57 pm

    people can be absolutely unbelievable.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 13 April 2010 12:01 am

      Yes they can.

  8. Saturday, 17 April 2010 2:52 pm

    My dad always says “even a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept it’s mouth closed.”

    People say the dumbest things. They mean well, but are often clueless.

    I once saw a really funny list of really dumb things people say to cancer patients. I don’t remember one that I hadn’t heard said to me. Dumb comments are a universal curse…..

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 27 April 2010 9:17 pm

      That is what I kept telling myself — “they mean well.” But seriously, some of the things people say…

      Oy to the vey, as my friend Liz says.

  9. Sunday, 18 April 2010 12:13 pm

    Tghis all happens because stupid idiots think that by saying the “right thing” (whatever that is….), they will make the person feel better….
    Once I was at a shiva call and 2 of her neighbors were actually talking to each other on a non-related topic.

    Another BAD one: now (that your sick or special-needs loved one has died) it will be easier for you. Yes, it will. But WHO wants easier???!?????

    What YES tyo say at a shiva call: ask about good deeds of the person. Asked about his good midot. I did this at a non-frum shiva and the family thanked me at a later date….

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 27 April 2010 9:19 pm

      absolutely. talk about the gifts the person brought to the world and how they will be missed. Even when life will be easier, that doesn’t mean it won’t be painful without the presence of the one who has died.

  10. Wednesday, 7 December 2011 3:13 pm

    This was wonderful.

    I have tried to give people the benefit of the doubt (they’ve never been through this, they are severely socially challenged). It works, sometimes.

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