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The Sound of silence #774

04/14/2023 05:22:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shemini
"And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains, within the sound of silence."   Paul Simon
The Sound of silence

On December 29, 2011, I decided to attend the funeral in Montreal—of a rabbinical colleague’s mother, who happened to be the late-life companion of my uncle.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

What better way to comfort both my close friend and my uncle than to drive seven hours through the Adirondacks across the Canadian border and attend the 11 am service?

I left Glen Cove well before dawn and felt very proud that I made it in time. But I was not congratulated on the speed of my journey.

I approached my uncle minutes before the funeral began and offered my condolences, something to the effect of, “I’m so sorry.”

But rather than nod or acknowledge my presence, he began to strenuously wag his finger at me. I originally thought that his reaction was connected to his sadness.

And then I remembered what I had forgotten.

According to Jewish tradition, immediately after someone’s passing, we refrain from any act requiring a mourner to respond. We are told to leave that person alone within their personal reflections for the first three days.

It is such a simple but meaningful teaching.

These days, being a mourner has become increasingly difficult. People are so used to engaging in conversation. 

“Were they sick for a long time?”

“She is in a better place.”

“Is there anything I can do?

Let me tell you how I felt when my father died.”

Too often mourners tell me they cannot wait for their shiva period to end so that they can finally focus on their feelings of loss.

How interesting that one of the most realistic examples of this need for silence and introspection comes up in this week’s Torah portion.

As the Parashat Shemini opens, there is reason to celebrate. Moses calls upon his brother Aaron and sons to perform sacrifices around the newly dedicated sanctuary.

But something goes wrong.

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, go off script and begin to perform their own unauthorized rituals. And soon after, they are struck down and die.

There are many interpretations of why this occurred, and what message the Torah is trying to send. But what our tradition is sure about is the response of Aaron—the boys’ father.

Says the Torah, “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)

In today’s terms, as we relate to this biblical story, we could well ask, “How is this possible?” In a world where every emotion and life event is routinely shared on social media, wouldn’t it have made sense for Aaron to offer a prayer or public words of grief?

Instead, he remains silent and soon after, upon the encouragement of Moses, goes back to work.

Rabbi Simcha Raphael, author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife, writes about the reaction of a parent to the loss of a child, “It takes a long time for the grief to soften.”

Friends, we have just completed one of the most precious family times of the year. We have celebrated Passover with those close to us.

For those of us who remember Seders past, Passover also serves as a time to remember the old melodies, traditions and voices who once sat around the table with us.

When I visit my parents in Toronto, I frequently pause to look at a crystal chandelier hanging in their dining room—the same one that once glowed above my grandparents’ Seder table.

I often recall the political and social discussions that raged around that table as I grew up during the 1960s. Current generations don’t always share that sense of nostalgia, so often we remember those times—in silence.

The pain of our losses has softened over the years, but it remain silently within us.

This week’s Torah portion inspires us to consider that sometimes all we need is silent time to process our loss and embrace our memories.

Notes Rabbi Raphael: “We live in a culture which feels we must fix everything right away—when what we really need is more patience.” It was Rabbi Raphael‘s mother whose funeral I attended that morning.

And as we approach the first anniversary of the passing of my uncle Solly, I remember that day many years ago.

My uncle was very direct in his belief that Jewish tradition should be followed to the “T.” It is a lesson that—during the past 12 years—has served me well.

Often, we must refrain from words, and from trying to “fix” the grief of someone we care for.

Rather, let us dedicate ourselves to true “listening,” which—inspired by this week’s Torah portion—teaches that sometimes we need to walk without words alongside someone who is in pain.

Thousands of years after the passing of Nadav and Avihu, I still feel for Aaron. And so should we, as we seek to comfort those around us. For each of us heals in different ways.

We—as comforters—can do the most good by listening to the sounds that are not always vocalized by those in pain.

They echo in the wells of silence.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784