What do we respond when we are told sad or upsetting news? We pause and then think for a second, but we simply don’t have the right words for this moment. In order to break the silence, we often feel compelled to speak, so we blurt out something that we feel is relevant. Too often we wish we didn’t. Our Parsha this week reveals how to deal with these unexpected moments.
One of the most joyous moments of our national history was in the year 2449 from Creation, when the Tabernacle was completed and fully constructed, and G-d’s presence descended upon the nation. The moment was extra joyous because there was a non-verbal message from G-d saying that You are forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. This caused unbridled joy and the Israelites cried out in sheer delight—Leviticus 9:24:
Fire came forth from before G-d and consumed the burnt offering on the altar. And all the people saw, and cried out in joy, as they bowed in gratitude and awe towards the Lord.
Then tragedy strikes when Aaron’s two sons bring a non-commanded incense offering and are met with divine retribution. After Nadab and Avihu are consumed by a divine fire, Moses and Aaron are dumbstruck. Leviticus 10:1-3:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before G-d alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from G-d and consumed them; thus, they died. And Aaron was silent.
Despite being overwhelmed with sadness, bewilderment and loss, Aaron’s reaction is simply SILENCE. There’s nothing to say. No words can explain or address the moment adequately.
This has been the hallmark of the appropriate response to tragedy: Silence. Our presence is helpful, our helping out is appreciated, but the less words the better.
Too often we try to explain away a tragedy or engage a mourner with logical insights or distractions. It seems this is not the time for explanation, insights, or distractions. It’s the time for presence, solace, and silence.
We pray that we are not visited with tragedy. However, if and when we need to be there for others, let’s learn from Aaron and simply “be there,” without words.
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence