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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

When Silence is the Wisest Response



We live in a time of cacophony. It is hard to avoid the insistent opinions, accusations and proclamations, both external and — for many of us — within our own minds.

In the midst of so much noise, the most famous and enigmatic sentence in our parashah is especially resonant this year: “Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3) 


The story is well-known. After assisting their father in preparing to offer sacrifices, Nadav and Avihu bring an offering of their own that the text describes as eish zarah, or alien fire, that God had not commanded. Then “fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died before God.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)


The death of the two young men is shocking and incomprehensible. What sin could they have committed that could have warranted a death sentence?


One can only imagine how horrified Aaron must have been, observing the sudden and dramatic death of his sons. What did he say? The text tells us, “Aaron was silent.”


We wonder, along with the commentators, what was contained in Aaron’s silence. Was it heart-broken acceptance of the divine decree? Wordless desolation? Anger at Moses’ insensitive response? A breath-taking crisis in faith, as clearly God had taken his children?

Encountering this text again this year, I, of course, thought of Oct. 7 and the refrain I heard from many loved ones both in Israel and in the U.S. of ein milim, there are no words. The Hamas attack was so brutal and horrifying that the truest thing one could say at first was … nothing. One old friend in Jerusalem responded to my repeated emails asking how she was with a one-word reply, “Devastated.”


Eventually, we recovered our ability to speak about the attack and our responses to it. But we also know that, although the Jewish people famously love to talk, our tradition has eloquent ways to praise silence too.


“To You, silence is praise.” (Psalms 65:2) This verse richly expresses the idea that, while the sounds of prayer can be very beautiful, the sound of reverent silence can be the most prayerful expression of all. (Anyone who has been to a Buddhist meditation center or a Friends meeting knows that extended silence is sacred.)


“It is good to hope in silence until rescue comes from God.” (Lamentations 3:26) This verse is perhaps an odd contrast to the pages and pages of words of lament, outcry and profound mourning that fill the book of Eicha, or Lamentations. Surely, the author believed in calling out in pain. Yet here is the suggestion that sometimes the most eloquent response to profound loss is silence, and the best way to pray for help is also in silence.


And a 16th-century Mussar text, Orchot Tzadikim, brings us this: “Just as there is a time to open and a time to close the door of a house, so should one close the doors of one’s mouth. Just as you would guard silver, gold, and pearls in your room, within a case, making one enclosure within another, do the same with your mouth.” Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to say nothing at all.


Obviously, there are times when it is essential to speak. Our speech is one of the greatest gifts of being human when it is used for disseminating wisdom, for connecting and for expressing love and care. And when we are being harmed or when we witness harm being done to others, we must surely speak out.


But we are living in a time of an excess of words. Language is so often weaponized in today’s world, even more so in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack and the ongoing war in Gaza. So many people rush to make one statement after another, a process that shatters relationships and does little to reduce the sense of loss, to protect the people we love or to end the ongoing destruction of war.


Shortly after Oct. 7, a colleague of mine called to talk through feelings about the attack and the subsequent war. She found the incessant noise of proclamations, accusations and argumentation wearying and re-traumatizing. She asked astutely, “Why can’t we all just be sad together?”


During these terrible months, I have often come back to a poem that has been a favorite of mine, “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda. The poem begins, “Now we will count to twelve / and we will all keep still / for once on the face of the earth, / let’s not speak in any language; / let’s stop for a second, / and not move our arms so much. / It would be an exotic moment / without rush, without engines; / we would all be together / in a sudden strangeness.”


Neruda imagines what would happen if all of humanity spent some time in companionable silence. He continues later, “If we were not so single-minded / about keeping our lives moving, / and for once could do nothing, / perhaps a huge silence / might interrupt this sadness / of never understanding ourselves / and of threatening ourselves with death.” He concludes with an invitation, “Now I’ll count up to twelve / and you keep quiet and I will go.”


Aaron’s eloquent silence in the face of his sons’ death invites us to consider the need for quiet in this very noisy and painful time. Perhaps we could all just pause, count to 12 and see what might emerge in the blessed stillness.




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