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.
Our portion of Shemini this week reaches an early climax in the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest, the young men killed for offering eish zarah, strange fire to God. Aaron has just been notified of the death of his children. And 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)
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."
We humans fill the universe with words. It is through speech that we most closely imitate God, Who created the world through words. And yet speech is not always appropriate. As we learn from the book of Ecclesiastes, "To every thing 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)
In this week's Torah portion of Shemini, Aaron experiences the sudden tragic death of his two oldest sons. On the eighth day of their inauguration into the Priesthood, they brought a strange fire, eish zarah, before God and were suddenly killed.
Moses tries to comfort his brother, "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 experiences a number of grievous losses - his wealth, his children, his very health. His wife finally tells Job, "Curse God and die," 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 that Jewish tradition that when visiting a shiva home (house of mourning), visitors are supposed to remain silent until the mourners speak first.
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 elaborate words, and in the end 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 recently—terrorist killings in Paris, murder in a restaurant in La Encantada here in Tucson, horrifying war in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially Syria. As Jews, we are always looking for words to explain or soften the tragedy. We are, after all, a talkative people, one that seemingly doesn’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 9th Grade Class 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.”
We sure 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.
That something is embodied by our Caring Community, the aspect of our synagogue that brings meals of comfort to those who are bereaved, that helps arrange minyan services to provide communal moral support at times of loss, that visits the sick in the hospital, that fulfills the real mitzvot we can do at times of loss.
It’s not the rabbis who make up the Caring Community. It’s the congregants, the fellow human beings, the friends who bring comfort at times of loss, friendship at times of illness, who fulfill the ministry of presence that requires very few words, but brings solace and community when it is most needed.
Perhaps the greatest mitzvah you personal can do is to help our congregation fulfill the mitzvot of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, and nichum aveilim, comforting the mourners. There are simple, practical ways in which you can help when tragedy strikes. And it is these actions that create community and healing when we most need it.
Speak to me tonight, or to Rabbi Appel, and learn how you can help fulfill these great ethical acts. It truly is a mitzvah.
Moses may not have had the right words for his brother’s loss. But he was present, and brought healing in that primary way. We don’t actually need to have the right words either, for silent action can say far more than speeches.
On this Shabbat Shemini may we commit ourselves to this enterprise of helping those most in need. And then our words will truly have meaning.