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Silent but not passive

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Experiencing a loss is never easy, but it is especially difficult when the loss is associated with tragedy. Be it manmade or accidental or even natural, losing a loved one unexpectedly is something we should know very little of.

The reactions we have when we find ourselves in a state of grief often say much about who we are and our personalities. We cry, we deny, and we even point fingers; all very understandable reactions, and no one should ever be judged by their behavior following a terrible loss. Sometimes, however, not saying anything and accepting that certain things are simply beyond our control is the loudest statement a person can make.

Silence doesn’t mean letting go, and it certainly doesn’t mean not reacting at all. It also doesn’t mean allowing the perpetrators of horrendous crimes to get away. Keeping quiet is not about turning the other cheek but about recognizing that pain is beyond words. Trying to describe or justify a tragedy does more harm than good, and attempting to explain why something happened only cheapens the loss. Thus, silence is louder than words.

The example of this in the Torah is when Aaron, the brother of Moses, lost his two sons Nadav and Avihu. They were consumed by a heavenly fire in the newly constructed Temple in the desert, on the day that their father and their entire family formally began their service as Kohanim—priests—in the Temple. After their tragic death, Moses briefly consoled his brother but then reminded him that there was still work to be done—the first day in the Temple was pretty busy and the Kohanim were needed to carry out the daily service to the end.

The description of Aaron’s reaction to this takes up no more than two words: “Vayidom Aaron” — Aaron was silent. He didn’t protest that he had to be given time off to mourn, and he certainly didn’t throw in the towel and declare that he’s done because how can G-d allow this to happen. Instead, he silently went about ensuring that the service in the Temple was carried out, knowing that his silence and his actions spoke louder than anything he could have said at that moment.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe often used the example of Aaron’s reaction to his sons’ death to define the Jewish response to all sorts of tragedies. Throughout our history, there have sadly been no shortage of tragedies to befall the Jewish people, both individually and collectively—from pogroms and the holocaust to terror attacks—and the Rebbe always said that our job is not to yell and make noise, but to silently make the world a better place.

Silence doesn’t mean letting things slide. It means realizing that the response to tragedy must be productivity, and loud noises are the least productive thing we can do. Making noise might make us feel better temporarily, but it doesn’t accomplish anything. We don’t have answers and it isn’t our job to justify why these things happen—that’s G-d’s department and we are not G-d—but we do have a responsibility to ensure that the losses we experience are not lost from our memories.

Aaron accepted that in order to keep his sons’ memories alive, he had to continue his work in the Temple, which is what his purpose in life was, and it was work his sons were hoping to do one day too. In his grief, he recognized that it wasn’t about making himself feel good, but about bringing about actual good to the entire world.

Emulating Aaron’s behavior in our lives will lead to us all experiencing the day when there will in fact be only good in the world and the eradication of grief in our lives — with the coming of Moshiach!

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