The Deepest Response of Love

Why Aaron was silent in the wake of his sons' death.

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Aaron's Stoicism

What was Aaron's response? Two simple words: vayidom Aharon ("And Aaron was silent"). The word vayidom means more than he kept quiet--vayishtok. Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet, neither does he revolt or protest God's action. Total silence.

Aaron's response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.

A Personal Lesson in Silence

A few years ago, in 2002, my beloved son JJ, age 36, was killed while riding a bicycle in Israel. He had arrived the night before to celebrate the holidays with the whole family and was bicycling with his brother to visit his sister in Zichron Yaakov, when a young driver ran a yellow light with great speed and took JJ's life in an instant. JJ loved Israel, family, Judaism, athletics, God, nature, and life; and he was celebrating all of these loves when his life was snuffed out.

When my husband and I sat shiva, most people came with no forethought agenda or explanation, though a few--out of good intention and compassion-- tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. "He was so good that God needed him by His side" was one such attempt, to which on one occasion--unable to hold back my words--I responded, "But we on Earth need him more!" Most people understood at the deepest level that there was nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. And we ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.

At times, devout members of religions that affirm an afterlife are tempted to say that the deceased is "in a better place--living a better life in a better world"; or they are tempted to suggest that there must be some sin or error or judgment that has brought this fate upon the victim. Such persons cannot tolerate the thought that what has happened is unjustified, for it violates their deepest principles about good and evil, reward and punishment. They need somehow to internally rationalize and justify a reality in order to bring the world back to proper equilibrium.

The Jewish laws of bereavement, so exquisitely tuned to the needs of the mourners, stipulate that the shiva visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.