Parashat Sh’mini 5779
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
“Respecting the mourner’s silence”
This week’s parashah, parashat Sh’mini, relates an event in which Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, who was the first Cohen Hagadol (great priest), died by a strange fire that they had caused in the altar of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Many commentators have tried to explain what Aaron’s sons actually did and what that strange fire meant.
However, in this essay I do not want to stop at this fact, but, rather to explore the reaction of the father when he learned about the tragedy of his sons. The Torah tells us: “Vayidom Aharon” (“And Aaron was silent”) (Vayikra 10:3). Aaron lost his loved ones, his children, and he remained silent; he was speechless, he had no words to say.
Aaron had the gift of speech, he was able to stand before Pharaoh and tell him Moses’ words. However, after the tragedy his sons suffered, Aaron was silent. His grief was so deep, and his horror was so consuming that no words came to him.
Some commentators explain that Aaron was silent and didn’t cry or question or complain at his painful loss because he accepted God’s harsh judgment.
We might also think that the tragedy was so sudden that it paralyzed him, and he did not realize what happened or maybe his anguish and pain were so great and deep that he could not express these difficult feelings in words.
Isaac ben Judah Abravanel explains this situation saying “Vayidom Aharon” – His heart turned to lifeless stone (domem, a mineral), and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.”
Why did he not cry, shout, and complain rather than remain silent? Rabeinu Bechaye says that silence is one of the components of mourning, as it appears in other parts of the Tanakh (for example, Ezequiel 24:15). This was the way Aaron mourned his sons.
According to our tradition, we should respect the silence of mourners. The Jewish laws of bereavement stipulate that the shiva visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. This Mitzvah is developed out of the deep understanding that at the moment of most intense grief, no comment can offer genuine consolation.
In the Talmud, Rav Papa advises, “The merit of a condolence call is in the silence observed” (Talmud Bavli Masechet Berachot 6b).
Rabbi Yochanan brings the example of Job’s losses to illustrate this convention: “Comforters are not permitted to say a word until a mourner opens (a conversation), as it is said: They sat with him on the ground…. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great his suffering was… Afterward, Job began to speak…. Then Eliphaz the Temanite said in reply…” (Job 2: 13, 3:1, 4:1). (Talmud Masechet Mo’ed Katan 28b).
Blu Greenberg, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, writes: “The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.”
Usually it is difficult for us to be silent. We human beings need to talk and try to find meanings for everything that happens around us. However, when there is a loss, our tradition encourages us to respect the silence of the mourner and wait until the mourner is able to talk and share his or her feelings. We should be cautious about offering a rational meaning of the loss and be able to deal with the mourner’s stunned silence.
The comforter’s silence allows a mourner to know that a friend or family member is with him or her in this hard situation and really shares the heartache and pain. Silence allows the comforter to embrace the mourner, to elaborate the loss and to live the tragedy with sadness and dignity.