In Parshat Shemini we encounter the mysterious death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah text is vague in describing the episode, and numerous explanations are given as to why they were killed. Equally astonishing, however, is Aharon’s reaction to the event. Faced with such a dramatic tragedy, the Torah tells us “וידם אהרון, And Aharon was silent.” Meforshim note that the unusual word used to describe Aharon’s silence indicates not simply a regular silence, but a conscious and deliberate silence. Why? Why didn’t he give expression to his natural emotions inside? Rashbam suggests that Aharon was deliberately silent because that was the “call of the hour.” Despite his personal tragedy, Aharon’s main focus, as the kohen gadol and representative of the Jewish people in the newly inaugurated Mishkan, needed to remain on his communal role in the Mishkan. He therefore faced the extraordinary challenge of putting aside his personal mourning to focus on his role as kohen.
Over the years, Aharon’s powerful silence has served as a model for those able to maintain incredible silence in the face of challenging situations. Such silence represents the capacity to hold back and not openly react, despite a strong desire to do so.
The importance of silence is championed on numerous occasions by Chazal. Shlomo Hamelech states in Kohelet, “there’s a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel proclaims in Pirkei Avot 1:17, “All my days I’ve been raised among the Sages, and I found nothing better for the body than silence.” Maintaining silence throughout our daily lives—without responding to the goings-on around us—is a rare skill. Globalization has created a reality where we are given endless information, and an ability to respond easily and immediately. Social media platforms are designed to push us to share our opinions constantly—creating a natural inclination to respond to everything around us.
Yet Chazal are clear that we must be careful about our speech. There are times when a response is appropriate, and times when we should remain silent. Particularly in the realm of personal relationships, it is crucial to develop the skill of realizing when to comment, and when to hold back.
This capacity to know when to remain silent is particularly important as parents. It is natural, as the adults, for us to try to keep control over the goings on in the home by constantly commenting and intervening. However, we must be thoughtful about how, and when, we comment about issues concerning our children. We must certainly communicate with our children, and when necessary, let our opinions be heard. There are times, however, when our feedback or comments may be ineffective, or worse, counter-productive—when we would be better served by remaining silent.
I would divide these situations into two categories: circumstances where feedback should be relayed at a later time, and circumstances where no feedback should be given at all. In both situations, taking a moment to assess the impact of our forthcoming comment can help determine whether reacting would be productive or not. To cite a few practical examples:
1) A child blatantly disregards a parent’s instruction or request: for example, the child comes home after curfew, or sneaks a candy. Parents may feel the urge to assert their authority by yelling at the child immediately after. Yet, while it’s important to address the issue at hand, it should not necessarily be addressed immediately. Many factors—who else is present, the timing, the intensity of the moment, the mental/emotional state of those involved—should factor into when might be the best time to address the issue. By stepping back from the situation, you ensure that the ensuing conversation will take place in the most effective way.
2) As is often stated, parents need to “pick their battles.” As children go through adolescence, it’s common for them to assert independence and challenge the parents’ authority. As parents, we must consider carefully when to push back, and when to let things go. Sometimes by remaining silent we show our children (and remind ourselves) that we’re making an effort to understand their perspective as well.
3) When two children fight, a parent typically intervenes and defuses the situation. However, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, in their book “Siblings without Rivalry,” argue that when a parent gets involved in such a dispute, it often ends with both sides being upset, and the core issue unresolved. They suggest that this situation is, instead, an opportunity to model and teach children how to resolve arguments themselves, through communication and cooperation. Of course, in extreme instances of violence, a parent must intervene. Ideally, however, parents should endeavor to give their children the skills to deal with these disagreements on their own—helping them gain life skills in conflict resolution and compromise.
As parents, we often feel the pull to demonstrate control over what happens in our home—a sense exacerbated by living in a hyper-technological world that pushes us to respond to everything that happens around us. Yet we learn from Aharon HaKohen the power and importance of silence. It is specifically when we comment thoughtfully and less frequently—when we are strategic about how and when we talk—that we can be effective in communicating with those around us in a meaningful way.
Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at [email protected]