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Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann

The Sound of Silence

In what is perhaps one of the greatest and most sudden changes-of- atmosphere in history, the great joy and celebration of the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is tragically marred by the sudden death of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Just when the joy of the inauguration ritual had reached its peak, they performed an unauthorized service, bringing fire-pans with incense before Hashem, and lost their lives as a result.

"A fire went forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem." (10,2)

What was Aaron's reaction?

"Va-yidom Aaron, And Aaron was still. (10,3)" He said nothing at all.

Mefarshim (commentators) note the unusual use of the word "Va- yidom, and he was silent." The Hebrew word "va-yishtok" is the more common usage to express silence and lack of speech.

There are, the Sochatchover Rebbe zt"l (quoted in Beis Aaron) explains, four levels of physical existence, each with their own distinguishing characteristics. Humans belong to a class called medaber - those capable of speech and rational decision-making. Animals are referred to as chai - distinguished by limited intelligence and the lack of true speech. The plant kingdom falls under the category of tzomeach - things which grow from the earth, distinguished by their life-force, yet lacking true feelings and emotions. The lowest level of existence is domem - inanimate objects; stones, wood, etc.

Another way in which we can distinguish between the four levels of existence is to observe how they react to pain and distress. Humans, when distressed, will often react by lashing-out at the source of their pain. We have, it seems, an instinctive need to cause pain to those who pain us. Animals react to distress by crying out, and perhaps defending themselves against the source of their distress. While plants are not capable of expressing distress in any tangible way, they will react to extreme trauma by shrivelling up and ceasing to live. Inanimate objects do not react to distress or trauma at all.

When the Torah says Va-yidom Aaron, he explains, it does not simply mean that Aaron did not lash-out, G-d forbid, against Hashem, as a human might be prone to do under extreme stress. Aaron did not even react as an animal might, by crying out in a bitter expression of his inner trauma. Nor did he respond as a plant would - by wilting - i.e. by saying nothing, yet assuming an expression of bitterness and resentment. Va-yidom Aaron - Aaron was, so to speak, inanimate. He was completely at peace with Hashem's will. It was as if nothing had happened. Aaron's entire life had been dedicated to serving his Creator, and right now that service entailed quiet acceptance of G-d's decision, so that was what Aaron did.

We seem in our times to have grown uncomfortable with the very concept of silence. You are travelling in a car with someone else; a friend or perhaps a spouse. You had been speaking about something, and the conversation has tailed-off. After a moment or two of silence, your mind begins rapidly throwing-out ideas for what to speak about next. The longer the silence, the more uncomfortable you grow. It begins to seem as if the silence is screaming out at you! Something - your mind says - anything, just say anything! So you toss out some mindless thought, and the comfortable drivel begins once more.

Yet what is wrong with just sitting silently? Sharing a quiet moment with a close companion, enjoying each other's company. So often we say things just to keep the conversation moving - as if the threat of silence is some catastrophe needing to be avoided at all costs. Even assuming we are careful to avoid speaking lashon hara (gossip), and other forms of undesirable speech such as chanufah (baseless flattery) and sheker (lies and exaggeration), why is there a need to "drown out the silence?"

This phenomenon - the aversion to quiet - by the way, is not limited merely to our interaction with others. We avoid silence even when we are alone. How many people are capable of sitting in their car for any period of time without turning on a tape, or pulling out the cell-phone to see what's doing at home? Is it our own thoughts we fear?

Quiet, peaceful, reflective time can be our greatest ally, if we let it into our lives. Next time you're in the car, and your hand instinctively reaches for some sort of noise-maker, stop, and let yourself enjoy the quiet. In bed at night, instead of reading 'till you drop, try once in a while just turning off the light and thinking. Think about the day gone by, and what you would like to change for tomorrow. We call it a cheshbon ha-nefesh, and it usually requires silence. It can be a mind- opening and thought-provoking experience!

Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.



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