A Time for Silence
Chapter 4, Mishna 23
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Elazar said: Do not appease your fellow at the
time of his anger, do not console him at the time his dead lies before him,
do not ask him [to regret his oath] at the time of his oath, and do not
attempt to see him at the time of his downfall."
The advice of this week's mishna is straight, simple and powerful -- words
which hardly needs Dovid Rosenfeld's embellishment. In addition, as I like
pointing out, Pirkei Avos is eminently capable of jumping from "What is the
World to Come?" to "Be a nice guy" without batting an eyelash. It's all part
of our Torah; one aspect could not exist without the other.
The basic theme of this week's mishna is that we must be careful not to do
the right thing at the wrong time. As Jews we are obligated to be concerned
about our fellow man and assist in his needs -- be them physical, financial
or emotional. However, everything must be done in its proper time. King
Solomon wrote, "[There is] a time to remain silent and a time to speak"
(Koheles 3:7). People are not always ready to hear our wise or moralistic
words. We must have an awareness of what our friend can and cannot
handle.Well-intentioned words delivered to ill-prepared ears may do more
harm than good and may cause reactions and returned words which both parties
will live to regret.
Furthermore, quite often silence does more good than words. If a person is
mourning the loss of a loved one, words of explanation and consolation are
usually inadequate -- and often gratuitous. The mourner may not be prepared
to "size up" his or her loss by putting it into words. The time will come
for that -- but certainly not when "his dead lies before him."
(Jewish Law provides guidelines for the proper comforting of mourners. We
find laws such as that the mourner rather than the comforter be the one to
initiate discussions, and that the mourner has the prerogative to send away
comforters -- if he's just not in the mood to talk. I know of one awful case
where parents lost a teenage son to cancer. They were hardly in the mood to
entertain the huge throngs of people who came to call during the mourning
period (everyone feels that they have to do *something* in such a situation
-- that's why mourners are so inundated with food) -- but politeness and
social rearing forced them to put up with it.)
Rather, as our mishna implies, sometimes the silent show of support --
especially the support of close friends -- may be far more beneficial. The
silent presence of comforters delivers an equally strong message of
consolation: "We are here for you. We share in your loss and suffering. We
realize nothing we could possibly say or do would fully take away your hurt.
But realize that with our presence we stand together with you and are with
you in your sorrow." Comfort and solace are not always found in lengthy
dissertations on faith and religion. The Talmud states it succinctly but
with characteristic precision: "The main reward one receives for attending
the house of a mourner is for the silence" (Brachos 6b). Often, such silence
speaks far louder than words.
In Genesis 29, Jacob, in flight from his brother Esau, arrives at Charan,
the city of his uncle Laban. He will stay at Laban's house for the next 20
years. Upon his arrival he approaches shepherds near the city and inquires
about Laban: "Do you know Laban son of Nachor?" "Is he at peace?"
The S'forno (philosopher and Bible commentator of 16th Century Italy)
explains that Jacob recognized the importance of knowing another person's
status and mood before approaching him. One does not greet a successful
person in the same manner as one suffering setback. We must always consider
a person's situation -- financial, social, personal -- before addressing him
or her. There are things one just must not say to a person bereaved or
lonely, someone unemployed, a childless couple, or any person suffering and
sensitive. (And often that which should not be said would never dawn on the
sayer as being hurtful.) The Torah many times warns us to treat widows and
orphans with extra patience and sensitivity. And today we would certainly
extend that to children of broken marriages. There are all sorts of people
we must be approach with special care.Come to think of it, virtually all of
us are sensitive about *something*. And finally, we most certainly cannot
size up our fellow based on our own fleeting first impressions. Anyone is
capable of momentarily putting on a good face. And Jacob, embodiment of
truth and compassion, recognized all of this and took pains to see that his
initial meeting with his uncle would be a comfortable and proper one.
(For that matter, I always find it amusing maintaining e-mail
correspondences with students, often knowing nothing about the person's age,
background, nationality, religious beliefs, and often gender. (I am often
able to glean a few facts from the person's writing, if not his (or her)
handwriting. It's usually easy to tell if English is not a fellow's first
language.). It's interesting to see how differently we communicate with
others depending on such factors. It's certainly better to know one's
audience and to be aware of needs and sensitivities, yet it is undeniable
that our style of communication is based to a great degree upon decidedly
less-than-scientific preexisting assumptions and stereotypes.)
As is always the case in such areas, however, the Sages do not provide us
with clearly-defined rules. R. Shimon here provides powerful illustration,
but there are no hard and fast rules -- when do we speak and how, and when
do we remain silent. No two people are the same and no two situations are
alike. As we've discussed in the past, in spite of myriad volumes of Jewish
literature, the guidelines for interpersonal relationships can never be
fully defined and put into writing. They require a keen understanding of the
needs and natures of others and of the Torah's requirements of us. Applying
the Torah's truths to relationships requires as much an understanding of
human nature as the mastering of Jewish texts.
Nevertheless, our Sages here provide us with one single life principle and
rule of thumb, one which goes to the innermost heart of the matter: only
give others what they can handle. Try to help, instruct and comfort, but
only to the extent your fellow is able to accept. If he is not ready, leave
him in his sorrow or anger. Don't lecture others for the sake of stating
your moral convictions and certainly not as a way of saying "I told you so"
(the reason most people lecture). What will most benefit our friend must be
paramount on our minds.
And such is divine behavior: it is exactly the manner G-d treats us. G-d
warns, rebukes, and punishes but only to the extent we are able to bear. He
makes our lives challenging and sometimes harsh, but only in order to make
us grow and never more than we are ready for. G-d sometimes deals most
harshly with the strongest among us who will grow the most. And we too are
instructed to follow this Divine precedent, and through this, the love and
concern we must harbor for our fellow man will truly be in the spirit of the
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.