Parashat Shemini opens with the instructions for celebrating the beginning of priesthood services in the Tabernacle. It should have been a day of joy and celebration but tragedy struck shortly after the celebration began. According to Leviticus (10:1), Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, “brought before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them [to bring].” Because of this, they were killed by a fire that came from heaven. The exact opposite of the verse, which we recite in our weekly liturgy, occurred: “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11). All of the joy turned into sorrow.
Immediately after Nadab and Abihu died, Moses tried to comfort his brother, Aaron: “Moses here said to Aaron: “My brother, Aaron! I knew that this House was to be sanctified by those who are beloved of the Omnipresent God and I thought it would be either through me or through you; now I see that these (thy sons who have died) are greater than me and than you!” (Rashi to Lev. 10:3). Moses tried to comfort his brother by telling him that his sons did not die in vain. Moses told Aaron that his sons were so beloved by God that He decided to take them into His midst. Moses acted in a way that many of us might act when confronted with a tragic situation.
Moses used words to try to console Aaron, but Aaron, chose to mourn in a different way: “And Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10:3). Some scholars believe his silence was a way of saying that he did not mourn or cry over the death of his children, but instead, he continued his service in the tabernacle, as usual (see for example Rashbam, Chizkuni or Sforno ad. loc). I believe there is another way to interpret his silence. I believe he was silent because he did not have the words to describe what had happened. He could not understand how the greatest day of his life, the day celebrating his achievements, had suddenly become one of the most tragic days of all. The death of his sons was very hard to understand (the rabbis make a point of this by offering more than 12 ways to explain what their sins might have been). His silence was his way to mourn. Instead of explaining what had occurred, he chose to be silent. And for his silence, he was rewarded (BT, Zevachim 115b).
Moses used words, while Aaron preferred silence. Moses’ actions are very similar to ours when find ourselves in the home of a mourner or in the chapel after someone has passed. We often feel that only through our words may we provide comfort to friends or family members who have lost a loved one. We may not realize it but sometimes the words we use may do more harm than good. Words that are well-intended could sometimes be received the wrong way and instead of comforting someone, they could make a situation worse. A story is shared in the Talmud (Ketuvot 12a) where a poet used beautiful and clever words to try to comfort a father after the loss of his son but the only thing the poet succeeded in doing was upsetting the father even more.
We can learn from Aaron and his choice to be silent. When we visit a mourner, we do not have to talk. The Halakah actually recommends that we not begin a conversation with the mourner, not until they have to decided to talk to us first. Many times the only thing that a mourner needs is one’s presence, they need someone to be with them, listening to them. This is, I believe, what Rav Papa tried to teach us by saying: “The reward for the mourner’s house is in the silence.” (BT, Berakhot 6b).
To conclude, I’d like to share an old Arabic proverb, which says: “If what you have to say is not more beautiful than silence, be still”. What a mourner needs is our presence, not our words.
Rabbi Uriel Romano