A Time to be Silent and A Time to Speak

According to the Book of Ecclesiastes “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
Our parasha this week demonstrates a time when perhaps it would have been preferable to remain silent rather than to speak. Our parasha is called “Shemini” and its subject is the anointing of Aaron as the High Priest and his four sons as regular priests. Something goes terribly wrong in the process of offering the sacrifices, and two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Avihu, are killed when they offer what the Torah calls “strange fire” to G-d. Many commentators understand this “strange fire” to be an unauthorized sacrifice. Aaron’s brother, Moses, offers what I am sure he thought of as comforting words to Aaron. Moses says, “That is what G-d meant when he said, “Through those near to me will I be sanctified and be glorified before all the people.” In other words, he gave Aaron a complex theological explanation of the reason for his sons’ deaths. Do you know how Aaron responded? The Torah says, “And Aaron was silent.”  That was his response.

It is impossible for any us us to know what was going through Aaron’s mind at that time. Was he consoled by those words? Was he puzzled by them? Was he outraged by them? I do know that often we struggle with what to say when we visit a family that has experienced a death. It is one thing to do a shiva call to someone whose parents or spouse lived a long life and passed away at a ripe old age. It is quite another experience to visit a family who has lost a child or whose family member was cut down in the prime of their lives. In either case, words like, “G-d does not give you anything that you cannot handle,” “He’s in a better place now,” “G-d must have really wanted her,” or “G-d must have his reasons,” though well intended,  do not offer the consolation or support the bereaved needs.  If someone does say this to us in our hour of grief, the best response might very well be the one Aaron gave to Moses – silence.

Our Jewish tradition teaches   that we should be silent when we enter a house of mourning, and not speak until the mourner has spoken to us. The most important thing to remember is to listen. The bereaved person may need to talk. It is also appropriate to offer the traditional words of consolation, “May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Our people have been saying that for over a thousand years. Other than that, sharing a pleasant memory of the deceased with the mourner can be quite consoling. One of the most comforting moments for me when my mother died was when one of her friends shared her memory of how my mother and my father met. She and her husband-to be-fixed my parents up on a blind date! According to her, by the end of that evening my parents were totally in love!

Two weeks ago Middy and I attended a vigil at the Islamic Center in Villa Park in support and solidarity of the Islamic community in the wake of the New Zealand massacre. There were about a thousand people there. Only ten people stood before the microphone and spoke. The rest of us were silent, but our presence spoke volumes. Being there, showing up, was what was important. That is as true at a public vigil as it is at a private house of mourning. Of course, we will always remember our own experienced this last November when  in this very space we held a vigil for those killed in  Pittsburgh at The Tree of Life Synagogue.

As the verse in Ecclesiastes says, there is also a time to speak. Rabbi Elisha Prero of Rogers Park in Chicago sent the following message to his congregation:

“Shortly after the massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh several months ago, I was standing in line at a Dunkin Donuts when an older African American man approached to me and said, “I want to express my condolences for what happened to your people in Pittsburgh.” I was very touched, and I thanked him for his words of comfort.”

Rabbi Prero continues: “A few minutes ago, as I stood in line again at a Dunkin Donuts, I noticed a young man with a Moslem head-covering and was reminded of those words. I told him “I am very sorry for what happened in the mosques in New Zealand. It was a terrible thing.” The young man and his father ………. were visibly moved. They both put their hands on their hearts and said, “Thank you” ….. and shook my hand warmly.”

We may not have all been able to attend the vigil at the Islamic Center two weeks ago. We may also not be used to speaking to a stranger. But think about following Rabbi Prero’s suggestion. If you see a person who is obviously Muslim, you might consider telling them you are sorry for their loss. We may not understand what Moses meant when he said that through the death of Aaron’s sons G-d is sanctified. But expressing our condolences to an individual – and identifying ourselves as Jewish in the process – could mean a lot to the person and is a unique way of “sanctifying G-d’s name.”

Shabbat Shalom