The Unexpected Gift of Silence

The Unexpected Gift of Silence



Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus

At almost every worship service at The Temple, we have a moment of silent prayer and reflection.

I say “moment” and not “minute” because it is rarely a full minute, as people get antsy after about 20 seconds or so. Silence is not something we frequently have in our daily lives, so we when we do sit in silence, 10 seconds seem like an eternity.

In this week’s parasha, after Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, are killed when making an offering to G-d, Moses says to Aaron, “This is what G-d meant by saying, ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” Then the Torah says, “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3).

When I imagine this scene, I envision Aaron staring mutely at his brother, tears running down his cheeks, barely hearing what Moses said, unable to formulate a response. Whether we take this to mean that Aaron accepted G-d’s judgment or was in too much grief to speak, the situation is the same. In the face of tragic loss, Aaron was silent.

Tradition teaches us that when we visit someone in mourning, we should take our cues from them. If they want to talk, we wait for them to speak first and then respond. If they say nothing, we are present in their silence.

So often, I see people struggle to be silent, fighting the instinct to offer comfort with words. Yet we know words are often not comforting in these moments. What platitudes can we offer? What reasons can we give?

Sometimes, words only cause more pain and create a divide between us and the mourner. In a way, our tradition is protecting us from saying the wrong thing.

As clergy, my colleagues and I often find ourselves in situations where there are no words to offer. Whether it is the death or illness of a loved one, a tragedy in our world, something which challenges the notion of what we believe is fair and right…words are rarely enough in these moments.

People ask us questions which have no clear answers. We have conversations which embody the struggle with G-d that is a foundation of our faith. Ultimately, though, what is comforting in these moments is rarely what we say, but the fact that we were present.

There are moments when all we have to offer is our shared humanity and sadness, the gift of being present.

I remember seeing in a movie theater the phrase, “Silence is Golden.” There, silence allows for the enjoyment of a movie. Elsewhere, silence is golden in different ways.

Silence allows for emotional space, it keeps us from saying empty words, it gives us the opportunity to sit and be there for those who need us. It may feel like an uncomfortable eternity at times, yet it is often the most precious blessing we can offer.

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