A Time to Keep Silent…and A Time to Speak
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)