Judaism - Torah

A Corrective in Silence

I find it hard to escape the idea that the world could be a lot better these days if people were quieter.

Less angry debates carried out not to further knowledge, but to quash dissenting opinions.

Fewer 👏 clapping 👏 emojis 👏 to 👏 punctuate 👏 ALL-CAPS 👏 declarations 👏 on 👏 Twitter.

Less political grandstanding.

Fewer feverish rallies.

More silence: to think, to process, to reflect, to learn.

And so, I locked my Twitter account last night. Had my partner change my password, and told her keep it from me.

Silence.

In parashat Shm’ini this week, Aaron’s sons are killed – punishment for an overzealous act of piety. They try to get too close to God, and they pay the ultimate price – poignantly consumed by fire.

In the face of this catastrophe, what does Aaron do?  His two eldest sons die, leaving him without a chance to say goodbye; no opportunity to bury them; to engage in the traditional Jewish practices of mourning. What does he do?

Nothing.

Or, more precisely, he is silent. “vayidom Aharon,” the Torah says. His children die. And Aaron was silent.

Many have wrestled with the enduring meaning of Aaron’s silence. Was it a moment of “nothing,” or was it something more?

Was he so in grief that he was unable to utter a sound? (Abarbanel, 15th Century Portugal)

Could he have seen through the pain, transcending his grief, believing that their worship – though punishable – still brought them closer to God? (Sforno, 15th Century Italy)

Perhaps it was a moment where time seems as if it froze, and Aaron too, in shock, was paralyzed – a connection the Ba’al HaTurim seems to draw (R’  Yaakov ben Asher, 13th Century Spain).

I love that we’ve essentially been engaging in a millennia-long session of psychotherapy with Aaron, trying to understand him and the complexity of human emotion. Trying to refine our own empathy and sympathy.

And at the end of the day, I’m less concerned with definitively answering why he was silent, and more inspired by the presentation of a multiplicity of reasons to be silent.

Our tradition seems to say: Even in the face of catastrophe – of an event that might otherwise demand crying out – there are many reasons to remain silent. To pause. To wait before speaking.

Surely Aaron wanted to blame someone. To cry out at God. To project his anger onto Moses – the first person to talk to him. To scream in anguish at this tragedy.

But he is silent.

Of course there are situations that unequivocally demand our crying out. So this is not a naïve appeal to just sit idly by while justice is perverted. “Eit lakhshot, v’eit l’daber,” Kohelet teaches: there is a time for silence and a time for speaking.

But, like in the verse from Ecclesiastes, the time for silence often comes first.

Twitter especially, but all social media, too, is not a venue that encourages this kind of thinking. It breeds a world where every situation is deemed a catastrophe. Every situation demands an angry retweet, a snarky subtweet, a call out or a cancelling. It is always first a time for speaking, and never a time for silence.

So much noise.

So here’s a corrective to the seemingly pervasive opinion that 👏 every 👏 single 👏 situation 👏 requires 👏 shouting.

Our portrait of a silent, grief-stricken Aaron teaches so much. 1,000 years from now, I don’t think anyone will be psychoanalyzing the remains of Twitter. But we will surely still be encountering Aaron head-on: plumbing the depths of our tradition, learning what it means to be silent: when it perplexes us; when it is understood; when it is rejected; and when it is called for.

Silence, after all, is not just the absence of noise, but can itself be a form of praise to God: לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה אֱלֹהִים “Silence is praise to you.” (Psalms 65:2)

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