When to Speak and When to Be Quiet
This week’s Torah portion contains a very sad and tragic event. At the inauguration of the Mishkan/Tabernacle – an event anticipated with great eagerness and fanfare – two sons of Aaron, the High Priest, were struck down and died. In the flash of a moment, what was supposed to be a joyous and awesome event became mournful, sad and somber with the death of Nadav and Avihu.
I am not going to delve into the whys and wherefores of this tragedy that commentaries deal with at length. I wish to focus on the immediate aftermath and reaction to this calamity.
After the Torah narrates that a fire went forth from God and consumed them (Nadav and Avihu) and they perished before the Almighty, it writes: And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant when He stated, ‘With my close ones will I be sanctified, and in front of the entire nation will I be honoured.’”
And Aaron was silent.
It seems a little odd of Moshe to offer consolation, and even a reason, for Aaron’s loss at this raw moment and within such close proximity to the tragedy that just befell his brother. We have a Jewish tradition not to do such things. You might argue though, “Well, who better to define Jewish tradition than Moshe?” and so therefore it’s not really an question. Which would be a very good point except for the fact that we have an intuitive sense that offering up consolation or even reasons for personal tragedies is unseemly and tactless.
It’s always cringworthy when visiting a shiva house and hearing platitudes of reassurances as to why this is really for the best. Or that the deceased is in a better place. I don’t want my loved one in a better place, I want them with me in the here and now! Or other such statements.
It is for this reason that the Mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers (4:23) instructs us “Do not try to comfort the mourner whilst their dead still lie presently before them.” There is a time and place for everything, and when tragedy is still raw isn’t the time for a discourse on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rather it is a time to just remain quiet and stay silent. And indeed this is the reasoning behind the halacha (Jewish law) that one should not initiate conversation with a mourner during shiva week but should only speak if and when the mourner wishes to do so.
And yet, as we see, this is not the case here. Moshe right away offers up words of consolation. So we are back to square one – why would Moshe do such a thing? Ramban (Nachmanides) says that this was actually helpful since before Moshe spoke with his brother, Aaron was understandably crying profusely. But once Moshe said what he did, it had its positive effect, as the verse says, “And Aaron was silent.” Moshe’s words indeed comforted him and he stopped his weeping.
So we are left scratching our heads. On the one hand it makes a lot of sense to be circumspect about speaking to someone who has just experienced tragedy, and that we should approach them gingerly. On the other hand, we have this example of Moshe doing the exact opposite.
Perhaps the key to resolving this may be found when we consider who is doing the speaking and the motivation behind his words. In our parsha, it is Moshe. Not just Moshe the great leader of the Jewish people, or Moshe the prophet who understood God’s ways better than anybody else and was the most appropriate person to speak of them, but also Moshe the loving brother of Aaron. When Moshe the leader and prophet utters his words of comfort, in addition to Moshe the caring brother who shares his pain, then they are words said with complete altruism, love and compassion. They are words that were spoken with the full recognition of Aaron’s emotions and feelings at that moment, and where the only focus of those words were to comfort him.
There wasn’t any agenda on Moshe’s part. There was no uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy in an awkward moment that needs to be alleviated with hollow words that are often spoken on such occasions. None of that was present here when Moshe said what he did to his brother and calmed him in the face of utter despair.
And this is something we need to keep in mind when we are faced with these situations that arise in our lives. It isn’t so much about what you say, but who you are to that person and how you say it. You can have the exact same words being uttered by two different people, but depending on who is saying them, how they are being communicated and with what authenticity they are being transmitted, will make the difference between being words of comfort or words that irritate and are insensitive.
And if you are ever in doubt about what you should say, or if you should say anything at all, err on the side of caution and just keep quiet. Your presence alone will be a comfort to the person. And they will appreciate that more than anything that may come out of your mouth.
Hello, darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
– Simon and Garfunkel