April 17, 2020
We read in this week.s portion, Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), “Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what Adonai meant when God said, Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people. And Aaron was silent.” (10:3) In this week’s portion tragedy hits Aaron and his family. On the eighth day of their formal inauguration into the priesthood, his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu brings a strange fire before God. A fire comes forth from God and consumes the two young men. Moses tries to bring some words of comfort, how this fire shows how close the two men were to God. But Aaron reacts with silence.
The book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Often like Moses, we fill the world with words when silence is a much better option. How often to people confront those who have had a loss with empty trifle. “God does not give you anything you cannot handle.” “He is in a better place.” “God must have really wanted her.” “God must have some purpose.” The best reaction to these words is that of Aaron – silence.
In the Bible, when Job goes through his suffering, his three friends come to comfort him. For seven days they simply sit next to him, without speaking a word. Only after Job speaks do the friends respond. From this Jews learn one of the laws of visiting mourners in a house of shiva (the seven days of mourning). One simply comes in without saying a word. Let the mourners speak first. After the mourners speak, we can find the appropriate response. The truth is, there are no words. Your presence in the shiva home says it all.
These past few weeks, I have been busy with calls from hospitals and nursing facilities dealing with the horrific effects of the Coronavirus. Chaplains and Nursing staff ask me over and over, simply be there. Using the technology available, I allow people to sense my presence. I am “with” families who have lost their loved ones to the ravages of COVID-19, and other families whose loved ones are struggling to survive. I like to hope that simply being a presence was helpful. Silence says more than filling space with words.
Does speech have a place? Ecclesiastes says there is a time to be silent and a time speak. I have sat with people months after the loss, who have asked me, “Rabbi, why did this happen to me? Is my loved one in heaven? Does the soul survive death?” These questions also come up regularly in classes that I teach. This is the appropriate time to make sense of questions of life and death. I do not claim to have all the answers. But I do believe that we are more than our bodies. When our bodies die, there is a part of us that continues to exist, at least in some spiritual dimension. Can I prove it? No. But I have a deep religious sense that it is true, that somehow the soul survives.
There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Wisdom is knowing when each is appropriate. In our portion, Moses confronts the grieving Aaron with words about God. Aaron can only be silent. Simon and Garfunkel recorded a great song, The Sound of Silence. Silence often says as much as words. May we all learn to communicate through the sounds of silence.