Parshat Shemini: The Sound of Silence

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz
Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz (Courtesy of Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz)

By Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

Parshat Shemini parallels the emotional roller coaster that seems all too familiar to many of us.

The parshah opens with the culmination of the construction and dedication of the mishkan (sanctuary) and marks the inauguration of its service. But during this day of intense joy and celebration, we encounter the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. There are many explanations offered for why they died. However, I would like to focus on the response to this tragedy.

The Torah records that Moshe turns to Aaron and says, “This is exactly what God meant when He said, ‘I will be sanctified among those close to Me and I will thus be glorified’” (Lev. 10:3). There are many attempts to explain Moshe’s enigmatic statement; however, there is consensus among the commentators that Moshe was attempting to comfort Aaron with words of consolation. Aaron’s response is equally obscure: “And Aaron was silent.”

There are those who understand Aaron’s silence as acceptance of God’s justice. A second explanation is that Aaron was at a loss for words in light of the loss he had suffered. His silence indicates that he was not able or ready to make sense of the tragedy or to move on from it. He needed time to sit in silence. If this understanding is correct, then the message for Moshe — and for us — is that nothing he could say would help in the moment. It would be far more effective for him to sit with his brother in silence, allowing Aaron to mourn in the way that he needed to at that time.

A final explanation is that Aaron was silent because Moshe’s attempts at comforting him were ineffective. The Ramban, for example, writes that Aaron had been crying, but silenced himself after Moshe spoke to him. The Rashbam similarly explains that Aaron was silent from his mourning. In this understanding, Aaron had been grieving, crying and expressing his sorrow over the loss. But once Moshe tried to minimize Aaron’s pain by rationalizing the loss, the result is that he silenced Aaron. In other words, Moshe tried to make Aaron feel better after the loss of his son and wound up making things worse.

This story of Moshe and Aaron is one that I would venture to say resonates with all of us. When we encounter a loved one or friend who is in pain or mourning, or in need of advice, we search for the “magical thing” thing to say. Our attempts to make things better can have the opposite effect.

I am reminded of one of the key lessons from one of my teachers, Michelle Friedman, the chair of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Friedman would say that whenever you find yourself counseling someone else, the key word to remember is WAIT, which stands for Why Am I Talking?

There are times when our words and insights can be immeasurably helpful to someone in need. But there are even more times when our words, or our perceived need to speak and to break uncomfortable silences can be far more harmful than helpful.

One of the key lessons from our parshah is to be OK with silence. This is true if the person we are counseling is not able to hear words of comfort or explanation, then the appropriate response is to sit with them in silence.

At the same time, if we feel the need to speak rather than listen, or because we are uncomfortable seeing someone cry or express their emotions, we run the risk of silencing them and denying them the opportunity to mourn their loss. Often it is the sound of silence that is the “magic words” that make everything better.

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is the rabbi of Netivot Shalom in Pikesville.

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