SHMINI

FRIDAY, April 13th

After Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu die, Moshe attempts to comfort Aharon saying “This is what Hashem meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” In response, the Torah says that Aharon was silent (vayidom).  What is the significance of Aharon’s silence?  Some commentators, such as the Ramban, claim that Aharon’s silence shows us that he was comforted by Moshe’s words. Understanding that his sons’ death was a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, helped him not to grieve their loss.  Many commentators, however, such as Rashbam and Rabbeinu Bachya connect Aharon’s silence to God’s instructions to the prophet Yechezkel not to outwardly mourn his wife’s death, saying “moan silently” (hei’aneik dom) (Yechezkeil Ch. 24).  In Yechezkel, the context makes clear that his silence comes not from being comforted, but from restraining the outward expression of his feelings.  Here, too, then, Aharon’s silence may reflect not that he was comforted by Moshe’s words, but that he chose to restrain the full expression of his feeling.

If we read Aharon’s silence as Ramban did, then Moshe’s effort to comfort him was successful and praiseworthy.  However, Rabbeinu Bachya and Rashbam’s read seems to accord better with the way we would expect a parent to react after the death of their child.  A human being is not so easily consoled for the loss of their children.  In keeping with this, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar instructs us in Pirkei Avot (4:18) “do not console your friend when their dead lies before them.”  This is in fact the rule for how we speak to those who are in mourning. Traditionally we do not offer expressions of consolation to mourners before their relative has been buried.  Even after the burial, during Shiva, one shouldn’t open conversation with mourners, but wait for them to initiate, in order to avoid inadvertently causing more anguish with an inappropriate remark or premature attempt at consolation.  Thus, Moshe’s attempt to comfort Aharon, however well-intentioned, was misplaced and premature, and Aharon’s silence reflected not consolation but self-restraint or at best, resignation.

Often the best and most appropriate response to someone else’s grief is not to try and say something that will minimize the other’s grief.  The desire to utter words of consolation often stems from our own personal discomfort with their grief.  One of my spiritual mentors, the great Canadian clown teacher, Sue Morrison, once told me that before putting my arm around a weeping person to comfort them, I should ask myself “am I doing this because it’s what they need or am I doing it to make myself feel better?”  I try to ask myself this question every time I pay a shiva call or visit with someone who is going through a crisis of some kind. Before I speak or act, I try to ask myself whether my impulse to do something is primarily about making myself feel better, or whether I am responding a real need on their part.

We are currently in second week of the Omer, corresponding to the attribute of Gevurah, or restraint.  Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for another person is restrain our own impulse to say something or interfere.  May we all recognize those moments that call for intervention on our part as well as the moments that call for our restraint.