One of the most meaningful moments in my life occurred during my year in Israel, during Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Soldier Remembrance Day. I watched the busy streets of Jerusalem grind to a sudden halt. Drivers would slow down, pull over to the side of the road, park their cars, get out of their cars and stand on the sidewalk. Then there was the shrill blast of a horn and a minute would go by without anyone moving. Finally, the horn would blast again, and people would get back into their cars and go on their ways.
What was meaningful to me about this event was that it demonstrated to me the power of silence. We live active lives, moving from one activity to the next without a second thought. I find this to be especially true here in New York, where I see people getting agitated (and sometimes it’s me) every time the subway slows down or when there is a blockage in traffic. At times in life, however, something so tragic or so memorable occurs that it calls us to silence, to empathy and to reflection.
An example of such an event is in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini. In the Second Aliyah, the Israelites are gathered to see Aaron the High Priest’s sacrifices at the altar. At that moment, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered esh zarah, a form of strange fire that God did not command. As a result, God brought forth fire which killed Nadav and Avihu. This is an extrememly tragic moment, as Aaron has just lost his two sons in one fell swoop. Aaron’s response in this moment fascinates me: it is not a yell or a cry of outrage as we might imagine. Rather the Torah says vayidom Aharon, “and Aaron was silent.”
Why would Aaron be silent at a moment of tragedy? Abravanel, a late 15th century commentator, said that Aaron was silent because “his heart turned to lifeless stone.” Abravanel is connecting the word yidom, or silent, to the word domem, or mineral. According to him, God did not allow Aaron to feel emotion during this tragic time by hardening his heart. Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein, a 19th century Polish commentator, has a different interpretation. He asks why the Torah chose to use the word vayidom rather than its synonym vayishtok. He says that vayishtok would have meant that Aaron restrained himself from speaking or weeping but that vayidom, on the other hand, indicates that Aaron’s heart was calm and at peace.
I respect both Abravanel and Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretations, yet I disagree with them. I do not see God as changing our heart during moments of tragedy, nor do I think a father would be at peace after losing his two eldest sons. My interpretation is that this sudden loss was so tragic and the emotion associated with it was so great that Aaron was unable to speak. As a student chaplain at Bellevue, I saw people go through experiences that were so difficult and painful that they could not speak about them. It was traumatic to be in the room with people who lost an eye because of cancer or who knew that they would never be able to walk again. At these moments of need, what they could give was their presence but there were no words that could be summoned to match what they were experiencing.
I encourage each of us to find ways to utilize moments of silence in our lives, especially in relation to events through which there are no words. Aaron’s period of silence was needed in order to collect his emotions and thoughts. Through silence, Aaron gave meaning and reverence to the loss of his sons before he returned to work. Similarly, through a minute of silence every year on Yom HaZikaron, Israelis remember and reflect on their family members who gave their lives for their country and for hope of future peace. Both uses of silence call us to be mindful of the moment and to do what we can to unite as a community and to comfort those in need. May we work on utilizing moments of silence as call to attention for key moments both in our lives and in those of others.