The Power of Silence

The Power of Silence


The gentle pat always came first, interrupting my sleep only long enough to hear my dad whisper, “10-minute warning.” I would let out a tired moan, a confirmation that I’d heard him, and then pull my blankets tight around me and fall back asleep.

Rachel LaVictoire
Rachel LaVictoire

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, I’d hear my mom’s voice in the doorway: “Time to get up, Rach.” She’d turn the light on, and I’d reluctantly toss aside my blankets and pillows.

Our days tend to begin the instant we put two feet on the ground. We have a checklist of things we have to finish before heading out the door, a list of tasks to accomplish before returning home, and, sometimes, an ongoing list of things we need to remember to put on our other checklists.

We mumble these lists to ourselves and share them with our parents, friends and, occasionally, strangers just passing by.

Even in middle school, I ran through lists over and over again in my head:

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“Science test tomorrow. Basketball game tonight; okay, so that means I have to make sure to grab my jersey. I think it’s downstairs. And if the test is tomorrow…well, okay, I should be home by 8 tonight, so that’s fine…”

The revving noise would start up downstairs; it always sounded like someone was starting a lawnmower in my kitchen, but it was just the coffee grinder. Vrmmmmm!

I’d be at my sink by then. The methodical brushing noise of bristles on teeth would join the background melody of the coffee grinder, and I’d continue with my list:

“Okay, so basketball, science…what about other classes? I have nothing big in social studies right now, and just the regular vocab test in English on Friday…”

Clunk, clunk, clunk!

When the coffee finished grinding, my dad would always bang the little machine against the granite to gather all the coffee grounds in one place before opening it. My dog, thinking the little black coffee grinder was a knocking house-guest, greeted it with a series of barks and growls.

So at 7:30 in the morning, every morning, my dog barked at my dad’s banging, my brother ran his shower, my mom blared the updates from Good Morning America while simultaneously blow drying her hair, and I brushed my teeth while reciting to myself the schedule for the day.

The truth is that such mornings are probably pretty similar for most average families; and mind you, the example my family provided included only two kids – both old enough to get ready on their own. I imagine a household with younger children might also be filled with all that I’ve described, plus the jarring ambiance of whining and cartoons.

Regardless of family size, though, our morning rituals can sometimes be filled with stress: a nasty blend of haste and noise. In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we focus on an important lesson of silence.

Shemini means “eighth,” and is representative of the eighth day of the Temple’s existence. On that day, Aaron would be anointed as the kohen gadol, the high priest. Following Moses’s instruction, Aaron and his sons brought three offerings before G-d: one sin, one meal and one burnt.

The parshah reads, “And fire went forth from before the Lord… and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces (Leviticus 9:24).”

But immediately after the sacrifices were made, tragedy struck. With no backstory and no explanation, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu burnt incense, sending a “foreign fire” up to the heavens, and their impulsive decision to bring another offering before G-d, resulted in their immediate deaths.

The lesson here comes not from the incident itself, but from the following responses:

Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron was silent (Lev. 10:3).

Aaron’s two sons had just died. There’s no doubt that his mind was consumed with grief, anger and frustration. Moses’s response was neither affectionate nor comforting, and yet, Aaron didn’t lash out. He was silent.

The Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish mystical sage, teaches in the Mekor Mayim Chayim that only when one is silent can one cling to the world of thought, which is real wisdom.

Silence gives us time to really think. Eliminating distractions sets the mind free to go where it wants, and the exercise may even bring the peace and courage to venture to places previously avoided

Aaron thought for a long while; he remained silent for the duration of the chapter. Moses instructed him on the sin offering, and G-d sent down the laws of purity, and still, Aaron said nothing. It wasn’t until Moses confronted Aaron about his improper sacrifice that Aaron responded.

Aaron explained himself, reasoning that he could not eat the sin sacrifice because he was in mourning. He had fulfilled his duties as the kohen gadol by eating the meal offering, but he could not, as a man in mourning, eat the sin offering. He offered his defense, and both Aaron and Moses fell silent.

The Torah reads, “Moses heard this, and it pleased him (Lev. 10:20).”

And from that point, neither of them speak for the rest of the parshah. They listen as G-d reveals to them the extensive laws of kashrut, and there are no sounds and no distractions. They listen, hear and understand.

We can only truly process one thing at a time, so this week I challenge you to do just that: Be silent, and devote your attention to the task in front of you. Listen.

Rachel LaVictoire ( is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.


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