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Teaching and Embracing the Sounds of Silence

on Friday, March 21 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

It has been almost two weeks since the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.   As we follow the story the way we may read an incredible suspense novel – eager to skip to the last chapter to see how the story ends – it is easy to lose sight of how unbearably painful and excruciating every passing moment must be for the families of the 239 passengers on board.  The doubt created by not knowing the fate of their loved ones, and the inability to either begin grieving or rejoicing, must be beyond agonizing.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this story is the realization that despite how advanced our surveillance capabilities have become, and notwithstanding the sophistication of our satellite imagery and radar, we still have no idea of the whereabouts of this large aircraft and those on board.  Over twenty countries have joined the search.  Countless resources, agencies, and experts are working full time on finding this plane.  And yet, with all of that, after almost two full weeks, the one thing we know with certainty is how uncertain we are about what happened to this plane.

But that hasn’t stopped the talking heads and the 24/7 news channels.  From the moment this story broke we have watched, read, and listened to journalists interviewing experts offering conjectures, speculations, and theories.  Their response to the mysterious nature of this episode is to keep talking and speaking, though all the chatter has not yielded any real discovery or breakthrough.

“Vayehi bayom ha’shemini kara Moshe…va’teitze eish milifnei Elokim va’tochal osam vayamusu….vayidom Aharon.”  Aharon must have woken up that morning thinking, “This will be the best day ever.  It simply can’t get any better.”  It was opening day at the Mishkan.  He and his sons would be installed as the Priests and would initiate the very first service in the history of this magnificent edifice.  The nation was there, the elders were gathered, and with the encouragement of his younger brother Moshe, Aharon was ready to begin.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Aharon then experienced the absolute worst nightmare of any parent – the loss of his children.  There is no reason given, no explanation and no cause of death.  What began as the best day of his life suddenly was transformed into the worst.

How did Aharon react?  Did he let out a scream?  Did he sob uncontrollably?  Did he challenge God and storm out of the Mishkan defiantly?  Va’yidom Aharon, he fell silent, he was still.  What was the nature of Aharon’s silence?  After all, there are many different forms and causes of silence.  There is the comforting and supportive silence of companionship.  There is the awkward and uncomfortable silence between conversations.  There is the peaceful and serene silence of a moment of tranquility.  And there is the silence of shock, speechlessness, and astonishment.

Our commentators debate and disagree about the nature of Aaron’s silence.  Rashi describes Aharon’s incredible reward for remaining silent and faithful in the face of profound adversity.  The Ramban says originally Aharon was distraught and indeed cried.  However, Moshe provided words of comfort and consolation.  Aharon’s silence was a reflection of the effectiveness of Moshe’s words.  The Seforno says Aharon’s silence reflected his consolation in knowing that his sons had died al Kiddush Hashem, in the sanctification of Hashem’s name.

Interestingly, these commentators all see Aharon’s silence as reflecting that he had nothing to say either because he was comforted or because he fought his desire to scream out.  However, I think there is another way of interpreting Aharon’s silence.  Perhaps by being quiet, Aharon was actually speaking volumes.

Curiously, the Torah does not say “vayishtok Aharon, the more conventional word used for silence, which may have been the more logical choice.  Why does it use the term va’yidom?  I would like to suggest there are two variants of silence.  We all remember hearing as children, sheket b’vakasha – hey.  Sheket, is just the absence of words. Nobody speaking.  Vayidom is so much more:  It is not just a passive absence of words, but is an active state of mind, a way of being, and a loud expression.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe z”tl, the great Mashgiach of Yerushalayim, has a fantastic insight.  He writes – “We teach a child to speak. Once we teach him to speak, this becomes his nature, to speak and to chatter without end.  Do we ever teach this child how to be silent as well? Behold, silence is also a tool.”  In other words, the default should not be that we speak and in between the words there is silence.  Silence is an expression as well.  It is a tool, and through it one makes a statement.  When it comes to children, we must teach and encourage the tool and skill of silence just as we teach the tool and skill of speech.

Silence is not what happens when we catch our breath in between speaking.  Silence itself can be a form of crying out.  Indeed, the Kotzker Rebbe described a certain type of silence that represents yelling quietly.  Dovid Ha’Melech in Tehillim (65) tells God, lecha dumiya tehila,“silence to you is praise.”   Elsewhere, in Tehillim (62) he tells us, “My soul waits in silence only for God; from Him comes my salvation.”

Sometimes more can be said with silence than could ever be articulated with words.  It wasn’t that Aharon had nothing to say and therefore he was silent.  He used a shattering and stunning silence to say so much about himself and his relationship and faith in Hashem.  In fact, the Rambam quotes a reading of the Targum that translates vayidom as u’shavach Aharon, and Aharon praised Hashem through his silence.

Aharon used silence to make a statement of faith in reacting to a horrific tragedy.  But silence can and must also be used to communicate other statements as well.  Silence can express companionship and camaraderie.  Indeed, Jewish law mandates that we may not speak to a mourner sitting shiva until he or she addresses us first.  If in fact he or she prefers to be comforted by our silent presence, such is our sacred duty, despite the awkward or uncomfortable feeling it may generate.

Silence can also express closeness and familiarity.  When strangers spend time together, they feel a need to fill the air with conversation and dialogue.   But when a seasoned couple goes out for dinner or dear friends share a cup of coffee, they are perfectly satisfied with moments or even minutes of passing silence.

Silence also makes room for thought.  When our lives are filled with endless noise, the radio blasting, the TV playing, the phone ringing, or the emails or texts pinging, we don’t have the ability to reflect, contemplate, or think.  We have grown increasingly uncomfortable with silence.  When we get into our car, we immediately turn on the radio.  When we step into an elevator, we instinctively reach for our smartphone.  But silence is critical and indispensable to our mental health and sanity.  We must learn to embrace it and appreciate it.

And lastly, silence can express modesty and humility.  Rebbe Shimon said, “Kol yomai gadalti bein haChachomim, v’lo matzasi l’guf tov m’shtika.  All of my days I grew up among the greatest of Sages and, in observing them, I found nothing better than the art of silence.”  Being silent and letting others speak creates opportunities for us to learn, bond, and connect.   We don’t always have to have an opinion or a response.  It is ok to remain silent and to humbly absorb what others are saying without feeling a need to make them hear our voice.

Though I know it is the job of newscasters and journalists to speak, even as the facts yet unfold, I can’t help but find the media’s endless talk regarding the missing plane and the fate of 239 people distasteful, considering how little we yet know and just how ignorant we remain.

As Rav Wolbe taught, let’s do more to teach and model the wisdom of silence and not just the power of words.  If we feel a need to speak about this plane, let it be to pray for the safety of those on board and that God give strength and courage to the members of their family.


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