On Aaron’s Silence: Traumatic Death and Mental Health
Leviticus 10:1-3 Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered before God a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to do. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is 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.
For centuries, commentators have wondered about the reasons why Nadav and Avihu died, as they have wondered about Aaron’s silence. It seems only natural to the human condition to wonder why someone died “out of time,” or without a known reason. Wondering about the cause of death could be understood as a mechanism of self-protection… as in, “if I don’t bring an uninvited sacrifice of strange fire, then I won’t die the way Nadav and Avihu died.” And yet, the distraction of wondering about the cause of death can take us away from the sacred responsibility of attending to the mourners or those closest to a traumatic death.
That the Torah records Aaron’s reaction in the wake of his sons’ deaths – it tells us that he was silent– is of great significance. THIS is the call to us that we have an opportunity to notice that silence, to attend to the mourner/s, to the survivors of such an event. It’s as if the Torah is urging us to notice Aaron’s silence, and in so doing, to use his silence as a cue for our own behavior in response to these deaths.
What can we possibly say to a person who has just suffered a traumatic loss? We know too many examples of such events in our own lives, from the shock of the death by suicide, to the realities of death by natural disaster, to the horror of death by terrorism, and more. And yet, too often, we are stunned into our own silence, and moreso, into our own inaction, not knowing what to say or do in response to a traumatic death in our communities.
Recognizing the silence of Aaron, we can place him at the center of our attention. He is the primary mourner. Around him we might envision a circle of those closest to him, such as the relatives who are called on to attend to the bodies of Nadav and Avihu. And we can imagine that around them is yet another circle of support, the larger community coming together around the family who has survived a traumatic loss. These concentric circles have been termed, “the Ring Theory,” by psychologists Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. The basic idea of the theory is “comfort in, dump out.” This means that it’s okay for you to share your feelings with anyone in a circle one or more levels removed from yours outwardly, but for those in the smaller circles inwardly, your responsibility is to provide comfort.
What does this look like through a Jewish lens? It looks like the centering of the mourners after a death, in specific rituals, such as the lines of people we form at the cemetery after a funeral, for the mourners to walk through those lines seeing that they are not alone. It looks like the way in which we welcome the mourners to synagogue services on Shabbat evening during shiva, after the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, ushering them in to Maariv, the main evening service that includes the recitation of kaddish with the traditional words of comfort, “may you be comforted among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” again reminding them that they are not alone. The work of grief can feel quite isolating. How much more so after an unspeakable death, one that has no apparent explanation, or more explanations than are capable of being voiced at the height of such grief.
Working together with The Blue Dove Foundation, we at Shomer Collective, with the support of an UpStart collaboration grant, are committed to helping more people to speak about what we too often call unspeakable events. In the wake of the sudden death of a colleague in the Jewish community last year, we were left with not only the question of how they died, but more importantly, how we might help reduce the fear and shame in talking about death, most especially a traumatic death.
“Quieting the silence”, a phrase we learned from the mental health professionals at The Blue Dove Foundation, is the focus of a new partnership between our two organizations. In the coming months, we will be publishing resource guides for individuals and professionals, designed to help bring language to the places where we too often say, “there are no words.” We will create opportunities for professional training, and the sharing of individual and communal experiences, promoting the idea of talking about how to respond before we might be called on to do so following a traumatic death.
Aaron’s silence following the deaths of his sons is among the loudest and clearest messages of this Torah portion. May it serve as a cue for our own responses to traumatic death, comforting the mourners at the center, and turning outward for our own support.