Parshat Shemini – The Sound of Silence: When Saying Nothing is the Right Thing


“Saying nothing…sometimes says the most.”

– Emily Dickenson

I ran into a friend at the market, and she looked sadder than when I had seen her recently at her father’s shiva. “It’s hitting me harder now,” she paused, looking down, “and there was so much family business going on.” At first, I thought she meant those nasty family dynamics that can be catalyzed by a death in the family, but she meant it literally. The people around her were very focused on the “business” of her father’s estate, despite her repeated requests that these conversations wait until after the mourning period was over.

Proper shiva protocol requires that people who want to pay their respects do not talk; instead, they are to sit quietly and wait for the mourner to speak, and they follow the mourner’s lead. After all, it’s the mourner’s show, so to speak – we are there to comfort them – not add to their pain with inappropriate conversation or behavior. Why is that so hard to do? It’s challenging enough to “say the right thing” under difficult circumstances. When we are given a pass, however, where we don’t even have to speak, except to offer simple mandatory scripted words of condolences, why are so we uncomfortable with silence?

I tried to explain to my friend how different people react to grief and mourning differently, where some negate or avoid pain by becoming preoccupied with busy work or mundane matters to feel a sense of control.   Looking back, I wish I could take back my words. In a misguided attempt to make her “feel better,” or “fix the situation,” I was negating her emotions, whereas I should have held the space to witness and validate her experience.

What is Silence Anyway?

It’s one thing to shut down external noise, but what about the noise inside? Have you listened to yourself lately? Research has clocked the average person as having 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, 95% of which are the same thoughts from the day before, and what’s worse, 80% of our thoughts are negative.   Despite the books on mindfulness that I leave strategically around the house, my husband isn’t fooled. When he catches me staring into space with darting eyes, he’ll ask: “How’s the conversation going in your head?” Umm, you probably don’t want to know – it’s not pretty in there.

Is silence just the absence of noise, the mere cessation of the inner chatter? Try to stop thinking and pretty soon you’ll be thinking about how you’re trying to stop thinking. Instead of picturing silence as a mere empty void, however, imagine silence as a gateway to another dimension. Silence leads to stillness, which leads to awareness, which leads to presence, which is a state of being that accepts the present moment as it is. This mindful pause leads us to our center, the natural place of self-regulation, resilience, and choice. Whether you call it emotional mastery or emotional intelligence, it’s the space from which we can choose to operate and respond from our highest self, that part of us that is in harmony with our deepest values.   Otherwise, the noise in our head – which judges, condemns, blames and resists – keeps us in a reactive state, and that leads to adverse and undesirable outcomes.

The Silence of Aaron

In Shemini, after the consecration of the Mishkan, (the portable tabernacle in the desert), Aaron’s two sons, Avihu and Nadav were consumed by a “heavenly fire” when they entered the Holy of Holies without permission or authority to do so. When Aaron learned the heartbreaking news, however, he was silent. He was not without emotion; the commentaries tell us that he was weeping, but that when Aaron heard Moses’ explanation for their deaths – that God considered this to be sanctification, he was silent.   Silence allows us to hear profound messages. When we face significant upsets and disappointments, or when we incur the unjust wrath or accusations of others, silence gives us the space to consider – what else could this be?

We don’t all have the luxury of Moses softening the blow with consoling messages from God. Sometimes, there are simply no answers – at least none that we can comprehend with our limited intelligence. Sometimes life makes absolutely no sense. Someone is in distress, and you struggle for answers as to why they are suffering or why an inexplicably horrible event has happened. As Eckart Tolle says, “When you fully accept that you don’t know, you give up struggling with the limited thinking mind, and that is when a greater intelligence can operate through you. This vast intelligence can then express itself through you and assist you.”   Then, if and when we choose to speak or act – because there are times when we must speak, and times we must act – we will serve the moment, or the person, or the situation in the right way. 

So This Time I Got it Right

Last week I was in synagogue with a woman whose mother recently died after a protracted and painful illness. With tears welling up in her eyes, she shyly confessed how in the last days she was praying for God to take her. “I feel a little guilty about that. Was that bad?” Words of advice streamed into my head. Of course, it’s not bad! You were an amazing and loving and devoted daughter who couldn’t bear to see her mother suffering. But I said nothing, because the real question – why did my mother have to suffer so – could not be answered.  Instead, I looked into her eyes with soft tearful eyes of my own, and with silence, held the space for her to accept it all – the grief and the love, the guilt and the relief.  

Said Henri Nouwen, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.”  Just as we are to use the gift of speech for the good, let us also learn to use the gift of silence. Sometimes, it’s just what is needed. 

HPerlberger_06272013_022_Web(2)Hanna is an author, attorney, speaker and coach, who helps people find happiness, meaning and spiritual engagement.  Her new book, A Year of Sacred Moments: The Soul Seeker’s Guide to Inspired Living, provides a method for people to engage their faith in a way that feels authentic and will make a difference in their lives.  For more info, visit





Judaism – It’s NOT to Die For

When something seems to go wrong,
it’s invariably part of a larger right.

~ Jed McKenna ~

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

As I write this, a dearly cherished friend lies in an ICU with a massive brain bleed; his allotted time on this earth is down to the count of hours.   In my view, the world is a lot better off with my friend in it, and so his shocking premature death hits very hard.  For the umpteenth time, it seems, I am engaging in that age–old theological enterprise, “theodicy,” which, according to scholar James A, Diamond, refers to “the justification of a benevolent God by reconciling His goodness with what appears as injustice and undeserved suffering in the world.”  I know I’m dating myself, but that Monty Python portrayal of God as a giant foot that comes down from heaven to squash the puny humans below resonates with a lot of people.

Thus, in Shemini, we have one of those Monty Python moments, a Biblical buzz kill, if you will. For several weeks, we have been reading – and re-reading – the intricate details of the building of the Mishkan, which was the portable Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Ten Commandments.  Spiritually, the Mishkan represented a portal and a tangible connection between man and God.  At long last, in an elaborate ritual conducted by Aaron and his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, the Mishkan was dedicated with fire-blazing pomp and ceremony.  In a sort of private “after-party,” the two young men snuck into the Holy of Holies of the Mishkan bringing with them an incense offering, which the Torah described as a “strange fire which God had not commanded.”  As before, a fire descended from heaven, but instead of consuming the offering, it consumed Nadav and Avihu instead, killing them on the spot.

Playing the Blame Game

One explanation was that they were drunk.  Lawyers refer to this as discrediting the victim.  After all, one does not enter God’s inner chamber in an inebriated state and expect to survive the encounter.   Another explanation is that they chose to worship God in an unauthorized manner, making up their own version of divine service. What chutzpah!

Even so, a God that metes out the death penalty for spiritual hi-jinks is rather harsh.  Such a view portrays God not just as unloving, but also as the ultimate petty bureaucrat in heaven, elevating form over substance to a ridiculous extreme.  Before accepting the Torah, we were wooed with the language of love.  Talk about “the morning after!”  Did the Jewish people need to be taught such a lesson?  The answer is “yes,” but not what you may think.

In an article entitled, The Pursuit of the Spiritual Life, Rabbi Shneur cites the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as portraying Nadav and Avihu not as arrogant, undisciplined drunks but, in fact, as two highly spiritually aware and engaged individuals.  Accordingly, their deaths arose not as a punishment from God for misbehavior, but rather, a natural consequence of their deep spiritual yearning.  According to the Kabbalah, Rabbi Shneur explains, there are two primary drives in the human experience: the drive to be grounded and also the drive, to the point of extreme yearning even, for spiritual experience.  Nadav and Avihu’s deep longing to experience God was fulfilled, to the point where their physical bodies were extinguished, as if their holiness was subsumed within God.

Thus, Moses consoled Aaron with these words: “This is what God meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I will sanctify Myself, and be glorified before all the people.’  And Aaron was silent.” (10:3)

Given the fact that Moses considered the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to be a sanctification of God- and not a desecration to God – I don’t understand why there is a need to create the narrative of a human crime and divine punishment.  Perhaps a deeper lesson is that we can have a benevolent, loving God and also see that Nadav and Ahivu were righteous and spiritually striving individuals.  Sometimes, you can have a “right” and a “right.”

Ironically, however, it can still be a “wrong,” in that Nadav and Avihu are not role models for us to emulate.  God doesn’t want us to die for the sake of Torah; rather we should live for the sake of Torah – fully in this world – albeit grounded and balanced between our physical and spiritual drives.  Thus, our soul-driven urges are expressed in this world via those physical acts, which infuse this earthly realm with holiness. The macro becomes the micro and vice versa.

Active Acceptance

Aaron’s “silence” at the news of the death of his sons was neither passive submission nor denial.  Rather, it was a state of being “broken-open,” and making a moral choice of possibility in the face of the impossible. While his illness is a hard pill to swallow, my friend did not waste his precious remaining time with bitterness and complaints and he did not disconnect from that which had given his whole life a sense of meaning and purpose.

Beyond Blame

Recognizing that it is a very hard lesson, nevertheless, when we can make an internal space that holds within it both suffering and a loving God, we may find therein a deeper connection to our Creator, a greater appreciation for blessings, and the motivation to recommit our lives to that which truly counts with more fervor and dedication.