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Silence and Action

Congregation Beit Simcha of Tucson, Sermon Shabbat Shemini 5780, April 17, 2020

We Jews are talkers. We are, in fact, among the most famous talkers in all of history. We are a people renowned for our words, and our leaders are legendary for their verbosity. Even Moses, a man with a speech impediment who protests that he is a man of few words, manages to orate the entire Book of Deuteronomy, supposedly in one long sermon.

There is a reason we are lawyers, comedians, entertainers, and public speakers of all kinds. We truly have a tremendous oral tradition.

Rabbis, of course, are no exception. There is a classic Jewish joke. One friend says to another, “My rabbi is so brilliant he can talk for an hour on any subject.”

And his friend answers, “My rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for two hours on no subject.”

But sometimes speech is actually an impediment. Sometimes, even rabbis, and religious leaders, need not to speak.

The Tzartkover Rebbe often stood in silence instead of preaching. When asked why, he replied to his disciples, "There are seventy ways of reciting the Torah. One of them is through silence."

Our portion of Shemini this week reaches an early and brutal climax in the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest. Near the beginning of our parshah, these young men are killed suddenly and shockingly for offering eish zarah, strange fire to God. On the eighth day of their inauguration into the Priesthood, they are suddenly killed by God.

In our portion, Aaron is notified of the death of his children. The Torah continues, "Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord spoke saying, ‘Bikrovai ekadesh v’al pnai ha’am ekaveid, vayidom Aharon: Through those that are near to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified; and Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:3)

That silence is fascinating. It is the only record we have of Aaron’s response to this devastating event. That’s all we get: he is silent.

You know, we humans fill the universe with words. Jews especially are famous for talking through everything. In end, when all is said and done, much more is said than done.

Yet speech is important. It is through speech that we most closely imitate God, Who created the world with words. Every aspect of the creation of the universe in Genesis begins with the phrase, “And God spoke”, usually Vayomer Adonai.

Yet speech is not always appropriate. As we learn from the book of Ecclesiastes, "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven ... A time for silence and a time for speaking." (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)

After the death of Nadav and Avihu, Moses tries to comfort his brother, Aaron, saying, "This is what the Lord spoke saying, through those near to me will I be sanctified." Aaron hears the words but does not react. All he can do is be silent. Moses tries to help with words, but Aaron does not need words at that point. Sometimes the proper reaction to tragedy is silence.

In the book of Job, the protagonist, Job, suffers a number of grievous losses - his wealth, his children, his health. His wife finally tells Job, "Curse God and die," get it over with, but Job replies, "Should we accept only good and not evil?" (Job 2:10) His three friends come to comfort him. But they sit in silence next to him for seven days, waiting for Job to speak first. From this we learn the Jewish tradition that when visiting a shiva home, visitors are supposed to remain silent until the mourners speak first. Silence is appropriate in the face of great grief.

In the Bible, Job calls on God to appear before him and justify God’s actions. At the end of the book God appears before Job and engages in a long soliloquy. "Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge? ... Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Speak if you have understanding." (Job 38:2,4) Job listens to God's words, and says, "Indeed I spoke without understanding, Of things beyond me, which I did not know... Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes." (Job 42:3,6) Job finally speaks—and regrets it. In truth, silence would have been the appropriate response.

We have seen tragedy in the world many times—terrorist killings, horrifying war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, and now the terror of pandemic deaths in New York City and California and right here in Tucson. As Jews, we are always looking for words to explain or soften the tragedy. We are such a talkative people who seemingly don’t know how to be silent; two Jews, three opinions, and many, many words. Our lives are filled with words—verbal, written, electronic; TV, radio, email, text, Facebook, Twitter. Words everywhere and always. Even sermons.

Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that sometimes silence is wiser in the face of tragedy. Like Job, we humans cannot truly understand the ways of God.

In our Middle School Religious School we are studying Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors in the Mishnah. Shimon ben Gamliel, the son of another great scholar, says, “All my days I have grown up among the wise. I have found nothing to be of better service than silence… not learning but doing is the central object; and whoever is profuse of words literally causes sin.”

In our Mussar Study Group, one of the Midot, the moral qualities that shape our character, that we studied recently was silence. I thought I might have the class sit silently for 90 minutes to explore the concept, but I wasn’t quite able to make myself do it… it was a fascinating discussion about silence, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but highlighted just how important silence can be.

We do talk a lot. But when sadness hits, it is not the time to discuss theology. Words about God's justice are scant comfort to the bereaved and the injured. Moses' words brought little solace to his brother Aaron following his tragic loss.

There is a time to speak and a time for silence.

But where words cannot help, sometimes actions can.

When people in our own community are struggling, bereaved, ill, frightened, sad, there is something we can do. When people are terrified by a new and deadly illness, there are times when simple silent presence is the best thing we can do. Or something more.

That something is embodied in a passage in our Sidur, taken from the Mishnah: it reads, “These are the things that are beyond measure: honoring father and mother, acts of loving kindness, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, accompanying the dead for burial, helping bride and groom celebrate, coming early to the temple to study Torah and to teach children Torah.

It’s these acts—not words but acts—that help most in times of deep distress, in moments of fear and loneliness. It is these primary Jewish acts that allow us to heal those who are most deeply injured.

Moses may not have had the right words for his brother’s loss. But he was present, and brought some healing in that primary way, just by being there. We don’t actually need to have the right words either, for silent action, being there for people—even on FaceTime or email or text or phone or Zoom, as we must now do it—can say far more than speeches.

On this Shabbat Shemini may we commit ourselves to this enterprise of helping those most in need, to being present any way we can for those we can help. And then our words, and most importantly our actions, will truly have meaning. And then perhaps, when things are most challenging, we will be able to provide comfort, and healing.

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