When to Speak and When to Be Quiet
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
This week’s Torah portion contains a very sad and tragic event. At the inauguration of the Tabernacle/Mishkan – something anticipated with great eagerness and fanfare – two sons of Aaron, the High Priest, were struck down by God and died. In the flash of a moment, what was supposed to be a joyous and awesome event became mournful, sad and somber by the death of Nadav and Avihu.
I am not going to delve into the whys and wherefores of this tragedy since I did that in a piece a couple years ago. (Check your email history.) I wish to focus on the immediate aftermath and reaction which is mentioned in just one verse.
First the Torah tells us, A fire went forth from God and consumed them (Nadav and Avihu) and they perished before the Almighty. It then says, 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 the deaths – to his brother at this time, so close to the tragedy that just befell Aaron. 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 may not be such a contradiction? 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 – especially when they are offered so close to the sad event. It is 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) and other such sentiments.
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 a time to suggest rationales but 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 the 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. The commentary, Ramban (Nachmanides) says that this was even helpful since up until the time that Moshe spoke to his brother, Aaron was understandably crying profusely. But once Moshe spoke, as the verse says, “And Aaron was silent” – it comforted him and he no longer was crying.
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 opposite.
And perhaps the key to resolving this is found in who is doing the speaking and the motivation behind the speaker. In our parsha, it is Moshe. Not just Moshe the great leader of the Jewish people, the prophet who understood God’s ways better than anybody else, but Moshe the loving brother of Aaron. When Moshe the leader and prophet says his words of comfort, in addition to Moshe the caring brother, then they are words said with complete altruism, love and compassion. They are words that were spoken with the recognition of Aaron’s emotions and feelings being at the forefront and where the only focus of those words were to comfort him.
There were no agendas on Moshe’s part. There was no uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy in an awkward moment that needs to be alleviated with hollow words that we sometimes speak at such times. 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 spoken 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 to say or if you should say anything at all, err on the side of caution and just stay silent. Your physical presence alone will be a comfort to the person and they will appreciate that more than anything.
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.”