PARSHAT SHEMINI

A TIME TO BE SILENT

“Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord meant by saying, through those near Me, I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.  Aaron was silent.”  (Leviticus 10:3)

            This week’s portion contains the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu.  The Torah never tells us their precise sin, other than they brought an improper offering.  Perhaps they were drunk.  Or perhaps they made comments that it was time for Moses and Aaron to pass on so they could take over.  Or perhaps they simply made up their own rules regarding offerings.  The Rabbis considered all of these possibilities.  But it was a tragic moment in the life of Aaron.

            Moses immediately makes a comment about the loss of his two nephews.  This shows how close the young men were to God and God gained glory through their deaths.  Aaron listens to his brother and reacts with silence.  Aaron is silent, but perhaps Moses should have been silent.  There are times when it is better to be silent.  That is why the book of Ecclesiastes teaches in one of its most famous passages, “There is a time for silence and a time for speaking” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).  Often, we speak when the proper reaction is silence.

            I felt this with the recent sad loss we had in our family, with the stillbirth of our grandson Asher Louis.  Mostly we received hugs and words of love and kindness.  But there were people who felt obligated to justify God over what happened, making comments like  “This is God’s way to keep your children from having an imperfect baby.”  Even if that is true, it is not the appropriate comment to make at the moment of a stillbirth.  Neither are comments like, “God wanted him in heaven because he was too valuable to send to this world” or “At least they already have a child.”  Silence is better than inappropriate comments.

            In the Biblical book of Job, the main character was tested by God, who sent the prosecuting angel (HaSatan) to take away his wealth, his children, and his health.  (Note – the idea of Satan comes from this story.)   Three of his friends came to Job to comfort him.  Thus begins a long, powerful argument about God’s justice.  But when the friends first arrive, they sit silently, waiting for Job to speak first.  From this we learn a powerful tradition, when Jews visit a shiva home (a house of mourning), they do not speak.  They always let the mourner speak first and set the tone of the conversation.

            The Torah teaches that words have power. God created the world with words.  The Bible teaches, “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).  Words are important, but often when we are uncomfortable, we fill the room with words.   We love to speak.  Nonetheless, words are not always the most appropriate reaction.  There is a moment when silence is the more appropriate reaction.  Musicians speak of the power of the musical notes.  But equally important are the pauses and the rests between the notes.  Often silence is more powerful than speaking.

            Silence is not always the appropriate reaction.  Our tradition teaches that when we see something improper, we are obligated to speak out.  The Talmud teaches shtika k’hodaah domya “To be silent is like an admission” (Yebamot 87b).  There are times we ought to speak out and silence is improper.  But there are other times when silence is the appropriate response.   The Mishnah teaches, “Shimon said, all my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found there is nothing better for the body than silence” (Avot 1:17).    There is a time to speak and a time to be silent; wisdom is the ability to know the difference.