By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg,
Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto
, Ontario, Canada
A Time for Silence and a Time for Speaking
The famous words of Ecclesiastes (3:1) remind us that ”
a season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven”
. Some of the actions associated with these experiences are straightforward. For example, in the spring we plant seeds; at a Simcha we celebrate with dance. However, sometimes our actions require more thoughtfulness. That is, when is it appropriate to speak up, and alternatively when should we remain silent? Too often we opt for the less ideal option.
Our society is obsessed with noise! We talk and we talk and we talk. Heaven forbid that we should run out of things to say. Certain politicians have mastered the art of extended rhetoric. If we run out of our own words, we can turn the TV on at any hour of the day and listen to others yap away. We can flip to any number of news stations and hear the repeating headlines. In our cars, we plug our smartphones in so as to avoid silence while driving.
Conversely, too often we don’t react appropriately in the face of injustice: when hearing an objectionable joke, we laugh. When witnessing racist behavior, we dismiss it as meaningless. When governments act with malice, we ignore the importance of challenging these actions. We don’t always stand up in support of our principles. After all, what difference can one person make in the world? Someone more suitable can take up this challenge! It appears to be easier just to stay quiet and leave the responsibility to others…
We can look to the Torah to help center us on the importance of our words. We need to be reminded to let our hearts take the lead.
In Parashat Shemini, silence is glaringly present as we relate to Aaron and the tragic death of his sons. This is one of the most curious stories of the Torah. Aaron’s response to this tragedy is noteworthy. We can imagine that Aaron would have been devastated, shocked, and angry. There are many words that we associate with these emotions. But we read, “
Vayeedom Aharon – and Aaron was silent!
” (Leviticus 10:3).
This silence has puzzled our commentators for generations. After all, how could Aaron truly have nothing to say in the face of so much sadness? It is odd for the Torah to call attention to someone not speaking. So we ask, what is the significance of Aaron’s silence? Was he accepting God’s decree without protest? Was his anguish too great to put into words? Was he even tempted to address the unfairness of his young sons’ tragic deaths? Perhaps the text is suggesting that there are many possibilities; however, there is more power in silence! This narrative models that sometimes there are no words! For example, we have all been to
houses and struggled to find the right thing to say. Most often it’s just our presence that is the most appropriate response.
Traditionally, Abraham is our teacher in speaking up in the face of injustice. Early on in his relationship with God, he was struck that God intended to destroy the community of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness in their midst. Is this right? Abraham challenges God asking, “
Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?
” (Genesis 18:23). Standing up to the Eternal took great courage, but that’s how important Abraham’s task was. Only he could be a voice for the voiceless. Abraham’s precious words would carry great weight with the Divine.
Abraham speaks to our time. As Progressive Reform Jews, we pride ourselves in making sure that our eyes are wide open to the happenings around us – to both the blessings and the curses. We must ensure that our Jewish needs are nurtured and protected. In the face of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel behavior, we must stand strong in the face of hatred. Our inclusive values push us to take note of the sensitivities of our brothers and sisters near and far. There is more in Judaism that binds us than separates us. We must raise our voices against persecution and injustice and demand that which is right. Abraham spoke up to God, reminding us that no one is off-limits in the attempt to construct a holy society. Interestingly, on other occasions, Abraham is silent and Aaron is more talkative. It behooves us to follow their leads: to be prepared to act appropriately, trailblazing a path of shalom.
In the days ahead, let’s master our words. May we recognize the appropriate responses in the situations before us. Sometimes this will entail making lots of noise, using our words to demand that which is right. At other times there are no appropriate words, and on these occasions we lead with silence. Let’s always fill the space with the love in our hearts. May our judgement be fine-tuned as the various seasons approach.