People used to ask me all kinds of questions about that experience, and always were curious if the deaf shul was “quiet”. Let me tell you the deaf shul was not quiet. A Board meeting in sign language can get very animated. There is a lot of sound in silence, there’s a kind of sound even in facial gestures and in hand gestures and in emotional gestures (sigh, gasp.). Silence is not empty, its full.
In this morning’s parsha there is a full silence which speaks volumes.
א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which God had not commanded them.
ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are near unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'
וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן. And Aaron was silent.
V’yidom Aharon. And Aaron was silent. Dam-blood. Aaron was blood-curdlingly silent. Duma-the underworld. As silent as the grave. Dimah-tears: Aaron wailed, without sound. Damam: frozen. Aaron was frozen in surreal time.
The expression va-yidom is only used one other place in the Tanach: in the story of the battle at Gibeon in the Book of Joshua, chapter 10. There we see God stopping the sun in its path so Israel would have time to defeat its enemies: “Stand still (dom), oh, sun, at Gibeon. Dom, a moment of emotional paralysis. V’yidom Aharon: And Aaron was struck dumb.
For a long time I was angry with Aaron for his silence. Your two sons are killed in the line of priestly duty, and you are silent? You don’t scream, you don’t rail, you don’t protest?
Was Aaron’s silence a kind of faithful resignation? Was it a sign of the depth of his anguish and pain? Was Aaron seething silently inside in rage? Could it be that Aaron’s silence was a response to his brother, Moses, whose strange words to him are hardly very comforting in the face of the tragedy that has just taken place?
The Rabbis didn’t know what to do with Aaron’s silence either. Rashi says that silence was resignation, and because Aaron was silent, he was rewarded later with being spoken to directly by God. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, says, “Aaron refrained from that which he had wanted to do—to mourn and to cry out.” Rambam reads va’yidom as “and he ceased”, saying Aaron actually cried out but became silent only after Moses’ words.
Moses was the first to react to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu—rather than their father Aaron. Like a Rabbi, he uses too many words. He gives a short eulogy, trying to comfort Aaron, but he ends up making things much worse. Does he think his words can ever take the place of the two children now gone? Speech signifies comprehension, but there are some things which are simply incomprehensible, and language does not work. I actually wish Moses had just shut up, and held Aaron’s hand.
I have learned, like so many of us, through the school of hard knocks, that in the face of tragedy, silence is not the lack of a response. It is the only possible response.
There is a silence filled with thought and with depth and with facial expression and with the breath of sighs. And there are words filled with meaninglessness and white noise.
We see this most clearly at a shiva. So many of us think we have to “cheer the person up”, tell them stories, discuss current events, fill the silence with noise. We reach for some words and like Moses they come out all wrong.
24 years ago on the English date of March 30, my only sibling, my sister Marsha, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 45. Today is her yartzeit. You can imagine that my parents and I were struck dumb. One day at the very quiet shiva one of my mother’s acquaintances struck up a conversation with me; a conversation I as the mourner did not initiate nor really want to have. It went something like this: “So, you are a Rabbi, yes? “Yes.” “When were you ordained?” “8 years ago.” “Well, I bet this shakes your faith a little now, doesn’t it? Do you still believe in God?” I was struck dumb again.
It is not only in the face of tragedy that we should learn to measure our words. In the face of an insult, sometimes silence is the best response, better than a sparring match of words.In the face of lashon hara— gossip and slander— sometimes silence is the best response, rather than participating in a mud-slinging fest. In the face of ignorance of a subject, sometimes silence is the best response, rather than making up some authoritative answer that leads people to believe you actually know something about what they’ve asked.
My mother used to say—and I have reason to believe all of your mothers used to say the same thing—“if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Sometimes I feel that even if we do have something nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all.
I have learned a great deal from my husband Baruch. For those of you who know him, you’ll recognize that he thinks long and hard before giving an answer., often for uncomfortably long periods of silence. In our family, where we all love to have the talking stick, this can be frustrating but it usually is a lesson for us, to look before you let your tongue leap.
People mistakenly believe that silence is empty—and we fear emptiness. We fear being alone with our thoughts and uncertainties and doubts, we fear playing the familiar tunes of our own failures and disappointments in our silent heads over and over again. I have a Rabbi friend who cannot be in a quiet room without starting a niggun, a song for everyone to join in. I know some Rabbis have tried to do silent meditation retreats but cannot sit without talking for that long.
We live in a world of constant noise, in a city of nonstop noise, attached at the hip and the ear and the hand to the ability to talk. Most of you know I turn off my phone for Shabbat, and it is the only 24 hours in a week that I can be still. And it is a struggle to be still. It is a struggle I want to win. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote,”Shabbat is Judaism's stillness at the heart of the turning world.” Do you ever feel like you want to stop the world and get off? We all need a little stillness.
In the book of Kings we hear the story of how the prophet Elijah learned to hear the voice of God. A great wind blasted the face of the mountain where he was, and he thought he’d find God in that noise. Then a great earthquake made the whole mountain shake, and he thought he’d find God there. Next a terrible fire swept everything into flames, but the text says: God was not in the windblast, and God was not in the earthquake, and God was not God was not in the fire. And then finally, after all that noise, Elijah heard a Kol Demamah Dakah, a still, small voice. And in that still, small Voice, was God’s Presence. Kol Demamah: a voice of stillness. Va’yidom Aharon, and Aaron was still. I think Aaron knew that God was with him in his silence.
I think we all have that stillness within us, but we need to appreciate its power. Its a power we need to cultivate, we very talkative Jews, even if it’s a lesson that comes to us through the painful and tragic story of Aaron’s loss.