Silence Says So Much
When Moshe tried to comfort Aharon after the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:3), Aharon was silent (va-yidom). What was the nature of this silence?
THE SILENCE OF AHARON
Rabbi Dr. Joseph Ozarowski suggests that the use of “dom” for silence instead of the usual “sh’tikah” indicates that Aharon’s was not a passive, quiescent silence but rather a questioning, searching silence. Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, as cited by his son Professor Aviad Hacohen (Hebrew), thinks that Aharon’s silence solved a conflict:
Instead of wrapping himself in silence, shouldn’t the angelic Aharon have accepted the judgment by proclaiming loudly, “Blessed is the True Judge”? And yet, standing at the tragedy, he was confronted by a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he felt obligated to bless God for the bad just as for the good. On the other hand, the terrible tragedy he was suffering filled his heart with sorrow. Because Aharon was a person of truth, he could not accept the judgment wholeheartedly while his sons were lying in front of him, charred and dead. Because Aharon was a person of faith, he could not bring himself to defy God either. Therefore, he was silent. “He was rewarded for his silence” (Rashi) – for being a person of faith whose heart and mouth were consistent.
In other words, because Aharon had mixed feelings about what to say, he took the third option and said nothing. A sign of dialectical tension, this was a silence of transcendence.
THE SILENCE OF THE SIREN
Silence expressing the inability to understand a tragedy has a national application. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes writes (Hebrew):
In the days between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, we need to learn from Aharon’s way, the way of silence. Faced with the enormous evil and the great suffering and loss, we have nothing to say, but can only be silent. The Holocaust survivors at first were silent and didn’t tell what happened. With the passing of years and generations, the silence eased up and people began to tell. But we still cannot explain and justify, comfort and be comforted. Better to be silent.
The State of Israel commemorates these two days with a siren, during which we stand silently. Asked about a Jewish precedent for a moment of silence to express sorrow, Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya points to Berakhot 6b:
The reward for [visiting] a house of mourning is for the silence.
Rabbi Hedaya explains that this silence involves sharing in the mourning. When Iyov’s friends sat with him for a week in silence (Job 2:13), it was because they had nothing comforting to say. So too, having a moment (or more) of silence conveys that we have nothing comforting to say. This silence is appropriate to commemorate Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron.
THE SILENCE OF A SHIVA
The silence mentioned by Rabbi Hedaya is not just a good idea, it’s the law: “Shiva visitors are not permitted to start speaking until the mourner starts to speak.”
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg explains the importance of shiva silence:
First, it emphasizes that the primary goal of the visit is not what you say to the mourner, but the mere fact that you are there. You are there to express empathy, not “to explain the ways of God to man.” Even if the mourner never says a word to you, and the two of you sit in silence for the duration of the visit, you have fulfilled the mitzvah of consoling the mourner… By his or her silence, the mourner indicates that this is not the time for words, but simply for validation and solidarity.
Second, waiting for the mourner to speak reminds you that your job is to follow, not to lead… Once you see where the mourner is comfortable going, you may, if you are close enough and empathetic enough, be able to steer the conversation to topics that would be therapeutic… You must operate within the mourner’s world … and not try to impose your own world upon another.
Amanda Bradley offers practical advice:
If I could write up one golden rule for shiva-visiting, it would be this: Don’t be scared of silence. I don’t have any … statistics, but I suspect that 99% of all hurtful comments [are] made by someone trying to fill a lull. If the mourners are not talking to you, it’s OK to sit quietly until they do. They may be struggling to hold back tears, or remembering a particular memory, or just feeling tired of conversation.
Let’s not be scared of silence. When appropriate, silence speaks louder than words.