SILENCE IN SPECIAL MOVIE — AND IN JUDAISM

 When I was a student in an afternoon Hebrew school many years ago, we would misbehave and cause grief to our well-intentioned teachers. I remember vividly that, one day when the teacher left the room, we started to play catch – not with a ball, but with a tefilin bag that had tefilin still inside of it.

Rabbi Herbert Cohen

Our teacher suddenly returned, and his face turned ashen when he realized what his charges were doing in his absence. He said nothing; he didn’t have to. We were desecrating that which he felt (and what we should have felt) was holy.

Later, we found out that our teacher was a Holocaust survivor, and we immediately sensed the folly of what we had done. He had never spoken about his past; we just assumed he was another teacher to harass.

That indelible scene still lingers with me today and was brought to the forefront of my mind as I watched “Incendies,” a film that reminds us of how little we know of the many people who occupy our lives.

“Incendies” opens with the reading of the will of the recently passed Nawal Marwan, a Christian woman raised in a turbulent Middle East where Christians and Muslims war with one another. She lived in Canada for the 18 years immediately before her death, working as a legal secretary for one employer for the entirety of her stay.

Despite such a long tenure, her employer barely knows her other than as a loyal and dependable worker. In an interesting twist of fate, he is now functioning as the executor of her estate and must inform her twin son and daughter Simon and Jeanne of an unusual request made by their late mother.

Nawal has asked that they deliver two letters: one to their father, whom they have never seen; and one to their brother, a man they didn’t know existed.

Although Simon considers this request a sign of his mother’s madness, Jeanne sees it as an opportunity to uncover the truth about who her mother really was. She accepts the assignment from the executor, and this sets in motion a journey to a war-torn country in the Middle East to discover the past of the deceased.

When Nawal’s son dismisses his mother as unstable and reclusive, he naively assumes that he knows who his mother was. Because of his youthful arrogance and insensitivity, he does not yet understand that his mother’s quiet demeanor – her reticence on topics of such import as other family members – may have been her strategy for survival.

As the narrative unfolds, we discover that Nawal’s life consisted of unspeakable horrors, and yet she somehow survived and lived, at least outwardly, a normal life. However, her demons continued to haunt her, and her response was to never confide in her children or reveal to them anything about her past.

Jewish tradition echoes her response of taciturnity in the face of tragedy. In his first meal after the death of a loved one, a mourner eats a hard-boiled egg, perfectly round and without an opening – without a mouth, as it were.

This reminds the mourner that, in confronting the finality of death, the most appropriate response is silence. There are no words to make things better.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, gave me another perspective on this matter that relates to Nawal’s hesitance to reveal secrets to her children. He taught that, in some circumstances, to not speak would contribute more to a situation than speech; he said that it is often wise to “strangle the shout” than to engage in a conversation, the consequences of which are unclear.

Our sages tell us that “there is nothing better for a man than silence,” implying that sometimes it is through restraining from speaking that our goals are best accomplished.

By Rabbi Herbert Cohen / AJT Contributor

Editor’s note: Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit koshermovies.com for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.