As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to for speech and a time for silence. The challenge is to figure out which response is best in any given situation—particularly in times of trauma and tragedy.
This challenge is at the heart of our Torah portion for this week, Shemini. Aaron suffers the ultimate heartbreak when his two sons, Nadav and Avihu are instantly killed by a mysterious fire from God while offering incense on the altar. Upon hearing of this calamity, Moses attempts to comfort his brother. He offers a rambling—even incoherent— explanation for his nephews’ inexplicable deaths: “This is what God meant when God said, ‘Through those that are near to Me, I will be sanctified, and before all the people, I will be glorified.’”
Not surprisingly, this lame speech does not console Aaron. His response is telling: Va-yidom Aharon—“Aaron was silent.” In the immediate aftermath of tragedy, we don’t want explanations, excuses or diatribes—even if they are well-intentioned. What Aaron needs from his brother is a silent, loving presence. In such situations, words always fall short. Explanations fail because there are no explanations. Sometimes good people suffer and die without any justification whatsoever to ameliorate the pain of those who loved them. We best understand and acknowledge this reality with compassionate silence.
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar wisely advises: “Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him.” Our tradition’s laws of bereavement stipulate, accordingly, that when making a shiva call, the visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks first. As Blu Greenberg notes, “The halachah enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. 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.”