The lights went out with the last chord of music and for a few seconds a great hush fell over the packed theater. Then the lights came back on stage, the actors bowed, holding hands, and all of us in the audience leaped to our feet for a standing ovation. Next to Normal, a powerful new musical about the perils of mental illness (!) opened on Broadway this past week and I was lucky enough to be invited.
A lot of excited chatter followed as people left the theater and congregated on 45th street to exchange opinions. There was much to talk about – the show is a provocative and inspiring rollercoaster– but I had nothing to say, or rather – nothing I could yet say. I needed more time to digest quietly. My friends went off to have a drink – and I walked away, into the city night, slowly and in total silence. Sometimes, a great hush is all one needs. Sometimes, it is all one can handle.
There is a moment of great revelation in ‘Next to Normal’ – a revelation of great grief. I won’t give it away – but it has to do with mourning – with the unspeakable pain and loss that refuses to let go. Walking away from the theater that night, ending up along the Hudson River, I kept thinking about the people in my life who have recently lost a loved one and how they cope – or how they don’t. How, so often, silence is all they need, all they can handle. Friends who have lost a teenage son to sudden illness, a friend whose parent died on the eve of the Passover Seder, a friend who lost his lover to AIDS, after years of struggle.
Then I thought of Aaron, the High Priest of Israel who lost two sons in a single moment – victims of a freak fire accident that takes center stage in this week’s Torah installment ‘Shmini’. The only reaction that is attributed to Aaron in the aftermath of this Biblical tragedy is total silence. Volumes have been written about his choice of action/reaction and what it may mean for us today. Over the centuries, different biblical translations also struggled with this single moment and chose to tell/describe very different reactions.
The fatal fire happens on the eighth day of the official inauguration of the Tabernacle. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, driven by zeal, enter the tent with burning incense and go up in flames. They broke the rules and were set up as an example for the other priests and Levites – ‘don’t play with the sacred fire’. They die in verse 2 of chapter 10 in Leviticus. In the next verse Moses turns to his brother Aaron with this cryptic explanation:
‘Moses said to Aaron: ‘this is it what God meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent.’ (Lev. 10:3, The New JPS Translation)
Never mind right now what Moses meant. I want to focus on Aaron’s reaction. ‘Silent’ is elsewhere translated as ‘speechless’, or ‘calmed’ or ‘held his peace’. These are very different descriptions – or suggestions – for handling grief. What does ‘holding one’s peace’ mean? Is it noble courage or emotional constipation? And does the (Orthodox) translator who used ‘calmed’ mean to say that Aaron was soothed by the theological explanation given to him by Moses – ‘only the good die young’? The Hebrew word argued here is ‘Va-yidom’ – a word that has in it both the allusion to great silence – ‘demama’ but also the word ‘da-am’ – Hebrew for ‘blood’. It is one of those loud Hebrew words, loaded with many meanings.
Why is Aaron silent? What is there to say?
A few months ago, at a funeral for a religious Israeli solider who died while on active duty (in Gaza), Aaron’s silent grief was mentioned by the eulogizing rabbi as the best way for the family to deal and heal.
I have to admit it made me uncomfortable, suspicious of this rhetoric. How is this linked to the norm of ‘boys don’t cry’ and to the ideology in which sacrificing one’s life, children, or happiness on the altar of the collective/higher cause demands a stiff upper lip?
Was Aaron really silent? What might he have said?
Or is hushing just something that happens, that must happen, when no words suffice. Often, in public Jewish events of mourning, such as the upcoming Holocaust Memorial Day (April 21) when there are few or no words to address the pain – Aaron’s silent mourning is remembered and cited – like a poem, like a wordless nod of the head – all tools for the human exchange of acknowledgment: unspeakable grief is part of our human existence.
Now that Passover is over, and the many words and books with which we mark out history of bondage and freedom are back on the shelf, it is perhaps a good idea to take a few minutes for wordless reflection. In the great aftermath of a great new musical, or a Passover Seder, or a devastating funeral, or a heartfelt conversation – there’s that hush moment that lets the experience sink in. And in that pause between words, that quiet breathing – there is great comfort, great silence, stillness, still here, keenly aware of the blood pulsing through veins, one drop at a time. I find that I need it – in the midst of daily dramas, emails, voicemails, txt messages, meaningful exchanges and endless chatter and all that rush: just hush – and strike a pause.