There are moments in life that are indelible; scorched onto our hearts and preserved in our memories. Sitting shiva, that week of mourning that defies conventional time by lasting forever yet flying by in an instant, is one of those moments. Although a few years have passed since I sat shiva for my father, one interaction haunts me until this day. Two short words lasting two seconds haunt me until this day.
They were delivered by my mother’s friend, a neighbor we had known for years but were not particularly close with. I got the feeling that this was a phrase she parceled out to all mourners, meant to be meaningful, a dramatic substitute for the traditional Hamokom Yenachem, G-d should comfort. The woman paused for a second as she turned to leave, nodding first at my mother and then to me. Her tone was definitive, leaving no room for response or rebuttal – an irrelevant fact since I was in no shape to counter her assertions. Although I was familiar with the term she used and by extension the gist of its implications, I wasn’t sure what comfort it was supposed to bring me, and the phrase clung to me tenaciously, a perplexing earworm whose voice spoke a language I almost, but not quite comprehended.
In parshas Shemini we rejoice with our ancestors as we read about the inauguration of the Mishkan, their brand new portable sanctuary. On the eighth day of the inauguration, Aharon HaKohen brings a korban, a sacrifice to Hashem, and blesses the nation. Almost inexplicably, his two sons Nadav and Avihu deviate from the prescribed ritual and bring what is called a “strange fire” as their personal sacrifice to Hashem. Their behavior was punished and Hashem sent down a fire that burned them to death, transforming what should have been a glorious day into a day of mourning. The verse sums up Aharon’s reaction in two words: “Vayidom Aharon, and Aharon was silent.” The fact that his silence is noted shows that there is something to be learned from his behavior. Rashi points out that later on in the parsha Hashem spoke to Aharon directly as a reward for this silence, so clearly his behavior was praiseworthy.
How are we to understand Aharon’s silence? Was it simply that he was too shocked by this turn of events to speak? Or was it that a man of his stature was able to quickly process what had happened and accept, without question, the loss of his beloved sons? One of Aharon’s strengths was the gift of speech. We are all familiar with the stories about how he skillfully restored harmony between quarreling individuals through his soothing words, acting as the proverbial lover and pursuer of peace. When Moshe protests to Hashem that he is not a man of words, Aharon steps in to be his mouthpiece. How ironic it is that after Nadav and Avihu are killed, Moshe tries to use his words to comfort him, and after these words Aharon is quiet.
Koheles (3:7) teaches us that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. The example Rashi gives for “a time to be silent” is this episode of “Vayidom Aharon.” Another time to be silent is while visiting a shiva house. When sitting down with the mourner, we do not speak until spoken to. Our job during a shiva call is to listen more than we speak. For the mourner, on the other hand, it is cathartic to speak. The shiva ritual is a psychological tool that allows mourners to verbalize their grief and to share stories, a process that allows healing to begin.
And so we come back to Aharon’s silence. If it is healthy and desirable for the mourner to cry, to wail, to create a healing narrative, how was it good that Aharon was dumbstruck? This was a specific silence for a specific time. It was Aharon’s job as a leader, as the High Priest, to model this appropriate response at this particular time to the tragedy that played out in such a public way. Of course he was grieving. The Abarbenel says that the root of the word vayidom is domem, a hard mineral, and that Aharon’s heart became cold and lifeless. For this reason, he could not mourn in the instinctive way other fathers would mourn.
This behavior however is not expected of us. I’m still not sure what our neighbor’s intent was when she offered us those two words. At the time I was confused (what are you saying?), a little hurt (are you telling me to stop talking, to stop questioning?), and not really in the mood for a dvar Torah. Despite, or more likely, because of my mixed feelings, her words wrapped themselves around me and held on tight. They were a vexing puzzle, a tiny gnat in my peripheral vision that couldn’t be swatted away. Paradoxically, after my father’s death I found myself full of words. I could not silence myself. I started to write again, after a decades-long hiatus. My voice, my words, trapped and frozen for so many years, flowed freely, merging with the tears I shed for my father. I was published, multiple times, on many platforms. Out of everything that I had accomplished in my father’s lifetime this is what he would have been most proud of. He was a quiet man, preoccupied with his sefarim and his thoughts. A man who never spoke out of turn, who wrote prose like a poet, masterful and meticulous, who knew precisely when to be silent and when to speak. In Ethics of The Fathers 1:11, scholars are warned to be careful with their words lest they be banished to a place of evil waters. I’ve written many times before that words have power; like any weapon they need to be wielded carefully and skillfully, aimed at the right person, in the right direction, and at the right time.
Aharon’s silence was a combination of shock, strength, leadership and profound grief – a reaction befitting the first high priest, this man of words rendered wordless. It is important, though, to remember that the Torah is not a storybook. We are not privy to what happened later in the day when Aharon returned home without two of his sons, when his heart thawed and the shock wore off. To make the assumption that he did not mourn differently in private would be to deny him his humanity.
We live in a world where pure silence is an increasingly elusive commodity. Slaves to technology, we strap our devices onto our wrists and our waists. Minions to the master, we sever conversations with children, parents and spouses when their call beckons. In Pirkei Avos (1:17) Shimon famously posits, “All my life I have been raised among the sages, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence.” This is not just a poetic turn of phrase. Studies have shown that silence can decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, relax muscle tension, and increase focus. As the body decelerates, stress is released and natural repair mechanisms allow both physical and mental healing to begin.
Many of us were raised with the mindset that concepts such as mindfulness and meditation were too earthy crunchy, touchy-feely to subscribe to. But back then things were different. We had no iPads or iPhones, our TV diet was limited. We read books, played outside, and most importantly of all, we lived inside our heads. We learned how to be bored; we sat in silence with our thoughts and our feelings.
“And Aharon was silent.” When we are grieving, or sad, or depressed, do we allow ourselves to sit in silence and process and allow our bodies to start healing in the way they were created to? Or do we anesthetize ourselves with noise, with empty platitudes, with a never-ending loop of TikTok to keep our inner voices at bay?
It is amazing to me that these two words, “Vayidom Aharon,” spoken by a veritable stranger, left the biggest impression on me during my aveilus. Although they turned out to be a catalyst for healing and growth, my initial annoyance could have festered and turned into something quite different.
When I think about what my father would want his legacy to be, I think it would be this: Use your words wisely, judiciously, and with delicate care. Embrace the silence like a long-lost friend, and when in doubt, say nothing at all.