Silence as a Path to Heal our Souls
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mini, we read about an immense tragedy that befell Aaron. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an unauthorized offering. Consequently, they were slain by a fire that issued forth from heaven. We are told that when Aaron was informed of his sons’ death, he said nothing: “And Aaron was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3)
What was the nature of that silence? What was going on in Aaron’s mind as he stood there speechless?
Maybe Aaron was shocked after he was told that their sons were dead. That traumatic and overwhelmed moment completely paralyzed Aaron and, therefore, he was not able to speak.
According to the rabbinic tradition, Aaron’s silence expressed his acceptance of the God’s harsh judgment without crying out nor complaining.
The Talmud (Masechet Zebachim 115b) suggests that Aaron was rewarded for his silence and the implicit acceptance of God’s will: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said this statement to Moses, but Moses did not know its meaning until the sons of Aaron died. Once the sons of Aaron died, Moses said to him: Aaron, my brother, your sons died only to sanctify the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He. When Aaron knew that his sons were beloved by the Omnipresent, he was silent and received a reward, as it is stated: “And Aaron held his peace [vayidom].”
Rashi said that Aaron received a reward for his silence. And what was the reward he received? That the subsequent Divine address was made to him alone and not to Moses also — for to him alone was spoken the section (vv. 9—11).
From these sources we learn the principle of our tradition of accepting the justice of God’s decree. This interpretation would later be used as a model, saying that “Just as Aaron accepted the justice of God’s verdict, so do we, throughout the generations.”
The recitation of the Tzidduk HaDin prayer (the justification of the Divine decree prayer) is a way for the mourners to accept God’s will once the grave of a beloved one is completely filled with earth. With this moving prayer the mourners declare their acceptance of the Divine decree and pray to God to have mercy upon the living. The death is beyond our understanding. Still, we take comfort in our faith that God’s compassion will continue in our lives.
Orchot Tzadikim (chapter 21) understands Aaron’s response as an ideal example of response to any experience of God’s harsh justice (tziduk hadin): “There are times when silence is good, as when divine justice strikes against a person, as in the case of Aaron, as it is written, “And Aaron was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3)
There are some commentators that believe that Aaron was furious with God for having taken the lives of his sons, but he was reluctant to express his anger. It may be that he feared that in his rage he would utter some blasphemy. Alternatively, he may have seen such an outburst as pointless in the face of Divine Will. They interpret Aaron’s silence as his capacity for self-awareness and control over his verbal impulses. In that terrible moment, Aaron chose to remain silent. He, somehow, found the wisdom and strength to control himself and to remain silent.
Maybe Aaron needed silence because he was desperate to find some way to connect with his own soul, with those around him, and even with God. Aaron took refuge in his silence as a spiritual way to cope with his deep feelings of anguish, sorrow and pain.
Sometimes, especially at times of tragedy, silence can enable us to connect with our souls and heal our broken hearts. As it is written in the book of Ecclesiastes: “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” (3:7) In the time for silence, there is no room for complains, blames and justifications. Just silence. Just a time to accept what is happening with strength and wisdom. Just a time of being aware that we are powerless to control that hard situation.
Thinking about silence in our time, Rabbi Naomi Levy wrote in her book “To Begin Again”: “Our culture doesn’t know what to do with silence. Silence frightens us… But silence can help to heal us…. If we can get over our fear of silence, if we can learn to embrace it, we will soon come to see that silence is where God lives.” (Page, 56)
May we be able to learn from Aaron’s wisdom and the explanations of our rabbis about the importance of having times of silence when it is appropriate, necessary, and meaningful.