‘There are no words’, we’ve heard too often of late. And yet Jewish wisdom, and contemporary psychology, and poetry, and song – offer us plenty of words for times like these. Rabbi Earl Grollman, of blessed memory, a master of consolation in a time before grief specialists, wrote, “In times of crisis, silence is not golden.” We need to probe the cliche “there are no words,” to reconcile it with the reality that there are many, many prescribed words, a whole Jewish language used for death, dying, and grief.
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar taught, “Do not console a person while their deceased is laying in front of them. (Pirkei Avot 4:18) Indeed, Jewish law instructs that the time of mourning begins from after the burial of the dead. Our obligation to console mourners begins only once burial has taken place. How are we to behave toward one who has suffered the death of someone close to them before the funeral has taken place? What are our responsibilities in this liminal moment?
The concept of the “ring theory” might be helpful. The ring theory teaches the idea of “comfort in, and dump out,” meaning, put the person or people at the center of a crisis or death in a circle, surrounded by concentric circles, layers of support, one circle after another at a greater remove from the crisis or death. When the crisis occurs, it is the responsibility of the people in the circle immediately next to the center to prioritize the needs of those in the center. They then can turn outward, to the next largest circle, to seek their own support – comfort in, meaning provide support to those closer to the center, and dump out, meaning look to people at an even greater remove for your own support.
While Pirkei Avot instructs us not to offer consolation to the people in the center until their dead are buried, we can still offer practical support, such as help arranging the funeral and burial, and responding to other emergent needs, such as childcare, preparing the house for shiva, and more.
Once it is time to console mourners, Jewish tradition offers guidance. When we make a visit to a shiva home, it is customary not to speak to the mourner until they have spoken first. We enter in silence and we sit in silence until it is broken by the mourner. When we leave a shiva home, it is traditional to say the words, hamakom yinachem… may you be comforted among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, recognizing that mourning is not a solitary experience. “May their memory be for a blessing,” we say when recalling one who has died, zichronam livracha. “Min hashamayim tenuchamu,” may you be comforted from the heavens, said by Sephardic Jews. “Mishtatfim b’tzaarchem,” we join in your sorrow, said in present-day Israel. “Baruch dayan ha’emet,” blessed is the judge of truth, said upon hearing the news of a death or at the time of rending one’s garment as a mourner. Plenty of words exist to try to speak to the shock of death.
And yet the Torah teaches that after the deaths of his sons Nadav and Avihu, who brought strange fire, an unsolicited offering before God, Aaron was silent. “Vayidom Aharon.” Psychologists suggest that silence is a trauma response.
We have seen this trauma response on full display in the last three weeks. Referring to the horrors of October 7th, Rachel Ettun, founder of the Israeli spiritual care organization Haverut, writes, “It is time to listen carefully to this frightening silence, as if collecting shattered letters from the ground, searching for words to describe the thoughts, the emotions , the feelings. It will take time to create a new language…..”
How might we find our own words to respond to this moment in history? What will it take for us to move through the silence into the change and transformation needed to attend to the crises facing our communities?
I humbly offer these questions as a challenge to the idea that there are no words, with the faith that in time, each of us will move through the times that call for silence into the language and action needed to speak to these moments.