July 18, 2024
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The Power of Silence

This time of year tends to be difficult for me. It reminds me of a dark period in my life. Seventeen years ago, four days before Pesach, I awoke in the morning, went into my parents’ bedroom, and found that my mother had suddenly left this world in the middle of the night. My father had been away on a business trip, my brother and his wife were at his in-laws, and I was alone with my mother.

The shock was overpowering. I had become engaged only a week before, and the words my mother shared with my wife on the previous Shabbos were suddenly startling and gave us an eerie feeling that we have to this day.

The trauma was intense, but that aspect of the story is for a different article. The pain of the loss was intensified through the abbreviated shiva period. I didn’t quite know what to expect when sitting shiva because I was in a whirlwind. I didn’t have time to think and feel, things were happening so quickly, with many people coming to pay a shiva call over three short days. Four days after my mother’s passing we were sitting at the Seder with what seemed to be many more questions than the “Mah Nishtana” offered on that difficult Pesach night.

Not many years later, my father suddenly left us after being hospitalized for just a few days. My brother and I were with him during his last traumatic and sudden moments. Needless to say, neither of my parents’ passings were “expected,” if that word is ever appropriate when speaking of death and loss. My father passed during the month of Shevat, and this time of the year, the period between both yahrtzeit’s gives me pause to reflect.

I look back at both shiva experiences and find a common thread. After spending more than a decade of my life in the rabbinate I have pushed myself to write about an issue that transcends any specific community, or any particular shiva, yet remains very important to me. Pirkei Avos teaches that the recipe for chochma, for wisdom, is silence. Shiva is a mourning process that is supposed to be driven and guided by the mourners themselves. The Shulchan Aruch tells us that it is the avel (mourner) who may speak first, if he or she chooses to speak at all, but that one who has come to comfort an avel, should only react based on the avel’s behavior.

Many of us feel uncomfortable in such a setting, and force ourselves to say something to break the ice or relieve the awkwardness of the situation. We are uncomfortable with shiva because we don’t know what to say. At times we may cause additional pain without even knowing it, by forcing ourselves to talk when there is no need to do so. Chazal had it right by placing great value on the power of silence. Often those who went through the grieving process tell me stories about comments people have made at shiva that were misplaced and inappropriate. I still remember one visitor to my parents’ home when my brother and I sat shiva for my father.

It was a co-worker of my father’s we had never met before. For some reason he found it necessary to engage with us by saying: “Look, it must be a good place where they (my parents) are now, nobody has ever come back to complain.” At that time, I shrugged off the remark, but years later I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Reflecting on my shiva experiences, I knew that people cared for me and went out of their way to comfort me just by being present. When they walked through the front door and I saw their faces, I experienced a warm feeling in my heart. There were times I prompted people to tell me about an experience or memory of my parents, and that brought me nechama, comfort, as well.

As difficult as this may sound, some of us may have a tendency to seek comfort for ourselves as visitors to a mourner’s home, because we feel strange and uncomfortable, with the expectation or possibility of the silence that we may encounter. The result is that we may try to make the avel engage with us by bringing up issues that are totally irrelevant, or by saying things that are really inappropriate for the time and place. We don’t do so to be malicious, we do so because we are uncomfortable with silence. It is most likely because we live in a time when we are constantly stimulated by the world around us. Learning with chavrusas, constantly texting on our phones or emailing for business, we find ourselves communicating with others for the greater portion of our day. Many of us are master communicators, but can only do so through words.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons that I have learned from my personal experience, as well as my experience as a Rav, is that people mourn differently. This is often based on their personality types as well as other factors. Some mourners are very talkative and find comfort in retelling the stories of the niftar’s life. Others only wish that they be left to silence.

Mourning is indeed a relative term, but we must respect that the aveilim are the drivers in this process. As a community we need to become more sensitive to this need. If an avel wants to converse with us, they will do so. Forcing an avel to talk because we feel uncomfortable with silence is an error that can be damaging and can cause great pain to one who is already heartbroken.

When Aharon lost his two sons, the Torah relates that Aharon was silent in response. This humble reaction was Aharon’s way of accepting Hashem’s judgment and internalizing his grief. Based on Aharon’s experience, the Gemara teaches us that an avel is supposed to be silent for a significant portion of the shiva process.

There is a powerful story told about a great Rosh Yeshiva whose talmid, lo aleyno, had lost a child. The Rosh Yeshiva came to the home of his student to be menachem avel, sat down next to the student and his wife, held his talmid’s hand, and cried with him for fifteen minutes. He did not utter a word except for the phrase of “Hamakom” that he recited upon leaving. Indeed, there is great power to silence.

Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler is Rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, NJ and an LCSW in private practice. Rabbi Zwickler can be reached at [email protected].

By Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler

Rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D, West Orange

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