Parashat Shmini: When to speak and when to be silent

Parashat Shmini: When to speak and when to be silent

United Synagogue of Hoboken, Conservative

The current health crisis is so difficult for everyone. And it is excruciating for the many who are contending with illness themselves, and the increasing numbers of those who have lost family members and friends.

The Torah portion of Shmini includes one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, and it is sadly of relevance to us who are regularly in the position of communicating with people at times of the most severe life difficulties.

Our Torah portion, like most of the book of Leviticus, is mostly the laws and details relating to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the sacrificial system that was practiced there and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Our portion notes that a tragedy struck in the middle of the ritual for the dedication of the Mishkan. On the eighth day of that dedication festival, in the course of their duties, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered up an esh zarah, a “strange fire,” that had not been commanded by God. The fire consumed them, and they died. What was supposed to be a great communal celebration became a time of personal grief for Aaron’s family, as well as shock and terror for the entire Israelite community.

Reading about people dying in a house of worship, in the act of carrying out a religious ritual, cannot help but echo the terrible acts of violence we have seen this year and in recent years, even if our current health crisis means that such tragedies may not be at the forefront of our consciousness the way they were just a few months ago.

Immediately after Aaron’s sons die, Moses offers some cryptic words, saying to his brother: “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” To these words, the Torah tells us, va-yidom aharon -— “Aaron was silent.”

Just as commentators differ about the meaning of Moses’ words — were they intended to be comforting? Explanatory? Condemnatory? — commentators differ about the meaning of Aaron’s silence. In the Talmud (Berakhot 4a), Aaron’s stoic silence in the face of this tragedy is understood as especially praiseworthy. Sforno (Italy, 16th c.) says that Aaron’s silence indicates that he was comforted. Nachmanides (Spain, 13th c.) suggests that Aaron had been wailing, as one might expect when one experiences a terrible family tragedy, and Moses’ words get him to be quiet, perhaps because Moses is reminding Aaron that he has a public role in addition to his personal family grief.

When I read this passage, though, I wonder if there are other ways to understand Aaron’s silence — knowing that silence, especially at a time of tragedy, can have many meanings. Whereas most traditional understandings of Aaron’s silence suggest that Aaron was accepting of tragedy, perhaps Aaron’s silence could also reflect shock and confusion, or profound grief. And (with the understanding that my reading of this passage is non-traditional) I wonder if Aaron’s silence may also communicate his anger at his brother.

It appears to me that Moses is doing what well-meaning people so often do: He is making an effort to explain someone else’s tragedy. His words are an effort to put the tragedy of Aaron’s sons into context, providing a theological rationalization for why they died after making what for anyone else might have been a simple mistake. Perhaps Moses intended his words to be helpful to Aaron. But what is comforting to another person at a time of loss is rarely the words. In fact, the words often get in the way of providing comfort to another. Many of the words that we think to say to others at a time of grief or other difficulty are helpful to the person who is saying them, not to the person who is hearing them.

But at this moment, I don’t imagine that Aaron is looking for a theological rationalization for the tragic loss of his sons. He is looking for someone to share his grief, not to explain it. And so I imagine that Aaron is silent, because he can’t say to his brother what he might really want to say. He may wish he could express his frustration that his brother has just said something so unhelpful, but he cannot bring himself to do so.

Traditional practice when visiting someone who is sitting shiva is that the person who is visiting is to be quiet until the mourner initiates the conversation. In other words, traditional shiva practice is the reversal of this conversation between Moses and Aaron. The mourner is the one who has permission to speak, and the visitor should be silent until the mourner requests the visitor’s words. Visitors may think they are offering comfort through their words, but more often it’s the visitor’s simple presence that provides the comfort. And all too often, the words get in the way.

Sadly, most of our shiva visits at this time of crisis are taking place online or by phone, but the same principles apply. We are helpful to those experiencing crisis and grief not when we explain to them, but when we listen to them, when we affirm them, and when we are willing to accompany them in whatever their emotional state. May we soon be able to resume such shiva visits in person, and again be able to be sources of comfort through our willingness simply to be present for each other.

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