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Listen and Support

04/14/2020 02:04:24 PM


“What does one say to mourners?” I often get this question when someone is planning to go to a shiva minyan. Recognizing the inadequacy of words, and the pressure to fill every silent moment with noise, people seek the right words to express their condolences. What I have found is that the best words one can share are those that express a commitment to listen and be a support. “What do you need?” “Tell me about your loved one?” When we let a mourner guide a conversation, then we can best accomplish our goal of comforting the mourner, which might look different for different mourners at different times. Moods and contexts are always changing and we never know the place a mourner’s mind is occupying. So we give them space to reflect and we take their cues from them.

Apparently however, Moses never got this advice. Tragically, in Parshat Shmini, Aaron’s two sons die after offering an unrequested fire to God. While it is not clear specifically what warranted their death sentences, it is clearly an emotionally laden experience for their father Aaron. Seeking to comfort his brother, Moses says “This is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’” And in response, Aaron says nothing. He remains silent. (Leviticus 10:4). Much ink has been spilled about Moses’ words and Aaron’s lack of response. Was Moses offering rebuke? Were these words of explanation or comfort? Either way, Aaron doesn’t have anything to say back to Moses. I have always read this as Aaron’s way of not engaging with Moses’ words which seemingly missed the mark.

The goal of communication is itself the main obstacle; trying to get another human being to understand you, while at the same time trying to understand them. And when a person has a plethora of emotions, that are hard to sort through, how can another human being possibly understand their complex emotions? This is true when someone experiences a death of a loved one, but also in other contexts as well. We write songs and poems to try to capture experiences, but we know that language is truly not doing it justice. No wonder Aaron remains silent. I wonder if Aaron even has his own words to express his feelings.

Whether we are experiencing the death of a loved one, or other strong experiences in life, we work hard to make sense of the emotions that arise within us. And when we encounter others, we work hard to decipher and understand a little bit of their emotional state. But we don’t always have the words, and sometimes when we offer kind words that we think are helpful, we miss the mark. Especially during times of crisis and disruption, it is important for people to have the space to process their emotions, while knowing there are other people around them who are working hard to listen and understand their perspectives. We can learn from Moses’ misstep, and we can be better friends, and better neighbors because of it. 

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784