Judaism: Acharei Mot: Response to Tragedy
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
A Silent Response
During his inauguration to the High Priesthood, Aaron lost two sons. In response to tragedy Aaron was silent. As High Priest, Aaron was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies on occasion, but only in silence - without bells on his tunic. Silence seems to be thematic to Aaron’s ecclesiastic worship. What is the power of silence and why is it a proper response to tragedy?
The Psalmist wrote, Lecha Dumiya Tehila – for you silence is praiseworthy. The literal meaning is this: Since we cannot articulate the grandeur of the Divine we are better served with silence. Better to say nothing than to attempt to capture the Divine and fall short. Yet the Psalmist prompts us to probe deeper and seek an even greater meaning. For you silence is [an ode of] praise. Mere mortals can be praised with words, but G-d is praised in silence. Not a passive silence, but one as active as an ode.
Silence usually implies the absence of words, but this silence is deeper; it implies the absence of a speaker. If there is no one to speak up, who will sing the ode? Why is there no one to speak up? Doesn’t Aaron have anything to say in response to tragedy?
A Silent Song
When we cruise through life without suffering we carve out a self centered perspective. I have interests and needs, some crass, some exalted, some noble others ignoble, but my overall purpose is to pursue them. I cannot accomplish these goals on my own, which is why I need G-d. G-d’s role is to provide for my needs and serve my interests so that I can reach my benchmarks and accomplish my goals.
We aren’t talking about petty or selfish goals, these are lofty goals, the kind even G-d would consider significant, and surely G-d wants to do His utmost to give me my best chance.
This mindset lasts until one has truly and really plumbed the depths of suffering. If you haven’t experienced the black pit of pain you cannot imagine the fundamental perspective shift that occurs. A sufferer sees his entire life pass before him; his lofty goals crumble as the light of his life is extinguished. A father who buries his children has had his love, goals and purpose irretrievably snatched. He has nothing left to live for.
Yet he still exists. What’s more the world around him still exists. Even G-d still exists. This realization can either crush him or forge a new and stronger self that will never come undone, it depends on the perspective he chooses. If he concludes that no one cares about his towering pain and no one understands him – life goes on as if his world hasn’t stopped in its tracks; it will crush him to pieces. If he concludes that he never understood what life was really about, he will choose to go deeper and forge a powerful bond with G-d and with life itself.
Till now he thought that the world revolved around his happiness, goals, needs and aspirations. Those were all sidelined in one fell swoop, yet he and the world are still here. This can only mean that he was wrong about life. It was never about him and his goals. G-d’s role is not to provide for him and help him reach his benchmarks. In fact, he is not the center of the world at all. If anything, he revolves around the center. Life is about G-d; the higher cause we are all here to serve.
When there is nothing left to live for, we realize that life is its own meaning. When we can no longer be happy, we discover that happiness was never the goal. The goal was greater than us and in that there is meaning, happiness and infinite achievement. In this there is G-d.
It is said that those who suffer experience unparalleled intimacy with G-d. When we come to the profound and deep realization that life is not about me and mine, we encounter intimacy as we are immersed and absorbed in G-d. At this point you stop talking. Not because you have nothing to say. There is plenty to be said, but you are no longer talking. Life is not about you anymore. G-d might talk through you, He might prompt you to say what He wants said, but that is not you talking, that is G-d.
When there is no daylight between you and G-d, when there is total fusion, the result is silence. It is the uplifting and powerful silence that Aaron experienced at his moment of loss. It is the silence the High Priest achieved in the Holy of Hollies. It is the silence of self abnegation. Even greater, it is the silence of sublimation, the silence of G-d. This silence rings true. It resounds much louder than words. Lecha Dumiyah Tehilah, for you silence is a song of praise.
Silencing the Silence
This is why the Talmud testifies that there is nothing better for us than silence and that an increase in words increases our sin. The more we talk, the more space we occupy. The more noise we make the less silence we enjoy. It is a choice; we either have silence or words, never both. If we choose words, if we choose ego and self, there is less space for G-d and that is a recipe for sin.
This is also the deeper meaning of King David statement, “I shall sing of your glory and shall never be silenced.” If silence is a priority, why did David pledge to never be silent?
Perhaps the meaning is that silence itself will never be silenced. We established earlier that the highest song of praise for G-d is the silent one. Presumably this is the song of glory David was referring to. So long as this silent song continues David is ensured that the silence will continue. Maintaining this silence requires effort and active attention.
As we wrote earlier, this silence is not the absence of words; it is the focused attachment of mind, heart and soul. Letting down our guard triggers an end to this blessed sweet, uplifting and transformative silence. So long as the song continues, the silence continues to deepen. David vows that come what may he will never silence the silence.
May we merit a sliver of such silence, but please G-d sans the suffering.