The most famous episode in this week’s parsha is the mysterious death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. As the Torah text is particularly vague regarding the cause of their death, numerous explanations are offered by the Rabbis as to why they were killed.
What seems abundantly clear and apparent from the text, however, is the reaction of their father, Aharon, to the tragedy. The Torah tells us “וידם אהרון”, “And Aharon was silent”. Meforshim note that the unusual word used to describe Aharon’s silence indicates not simply a regular silence, but a conscious and deliberate silence. Classically, this is understood to mean that Aharon reacted to this calamity with total silence. While it would have been normal and understandable for him to cry in response to the horrible news, he was amazingly able to hold himself back from displaying any emotion- as such a display would not have been appropriate, given his role as the Kohen Gadol and representative of the nation. Despite his personal tragedy, Aharon’s main focus, specifically on this fateful day, needed to remain on his communal role in the Mishkan. He therefore successfully put aside his personal mourning in order to focus on his role as Kohen.
Over the years, Aharon’s powerful silence has served as a model for those able to maintain incredible silence in the face of challenging situations.
The Ramban, however, gives an entirely different explanation of Aharon’s reaction. He suggests that in fact, Aharon did cry and grieve out loud in response to the news of sons’ deaths. But then following that initial outburst, Aharon was able to get control over his emotions, and then he was silent.
While the Ramban’s comments here are succinct, and he refrains from explaining the reasoning for his interpretation, the most logical explanation seems to be a keen understanding of basic human nature. When faced with the news that two of his beloved children had tragically died, Aharon reacted in the most human way possible- he cried out in grief and pain. To expect anything less of Aharon would be unfair and almost unreasonable- and therefore G-d allowed Aharon the opportunity to bare his emotions intensely and profoundly. Yet after those moments of intense and passionate emotion, Aharon was able to rein in his emotions. He understood that while it was important for him to let himself mourn, his public leadership role required of him to then contain his emotions, in order to properly fulfill his public duties.
Understood in this way, the Ramban’s interpretation of Aharon’s reaction highlights an important balance regarding how we are meant to experience emotion. When tragedy strikes, or we are faced with a challenging situation, it is important to allow ourselves to feel and experience the emotions that arise, and to react accordingly. It is unhealthy to deny or suppress such emotions. At the same time, like Aharon, we need to realize when it is time to stop wallowing in our emotions, and to move forward.
As parents, it is important for us to help our children learn, and develop, this crucial balance regarding experiencing emotion. There are moments when we need to allow our children to cry, and help them realize that there is nothing wrong with crying. Countless times I have witnessed a child get hurt, and a parent runs over to a fallen child saying, “it’s okay, you are fine”, or “dont cry, you are okay”. While this response is well intentioned- as the parent is trying to help their child realize that they weren’t seriously injured and that in the larger scheme of things, they really will be okay- I believe that “in the moment”, this response is less than ideal. When the child first falls or gets hurt, they are in pain, and crying is the normal and appropriate response. Rather than pushing our child to suppress those motions, or making them feel bad about having the instinctive reactions, we should validate those feelings, while also then teaching our child to recalibrate and not wallow in the emotion. I would suggest that in the above scenario, a more proper response would be “Oh no, you fell down, did you get hurt? I’m sorry, how can we make it feel better?”. In this way, we are letting the child realize that it’s okay to experience pain or sadness in the moment, while also encouraging the child to help himself move beyond the pain.
A similar situation arises when a child is hurt emotionally- perhaps he is hurt by a comment made by a peer, or by being left out by a group of friends. Our automatic reaction, perhaps because we never like to see our children sad, may be to tell our child, “It’s okay, you are better than that” or “there no need to cry about that!” Yet doing so would encourage them to quash their emotions in an unhealthy way. Ignoring the feeling of pain or disappointment does not make it go away- particularly when dealing with emotional pain. The suppressed pain tends to get buried deep inside, often expressed in other ways or at other times. Instead, a more appropriate response may be to acknowledge the child’s hurt and pain, be there with them in the hurt, and then through that help them learn how to move on from that pain.
Of course, the details of this balance may depend on the specifics of the situation and the child involved. For some situations, and some children, it may be more appropriate to allow the emotion to be felt for a longer period of time, and only then to encourage the child to move on. Other times, it may be more appropriate to only allow a brief experience of emotion before pushing the child to move on. However, the important point is that we must permit both processes to unfold fully. We must allow our children to experience and feel their emotions, and then help them find a way to move past those emotions.
The Ramban’s understanding of Aharon’s silence is at the same time revolutionary and extremely profound. While his interpretation veers from the classic understanding regarding Aharon’s response, the lessons that result are of extreme importance for us, particularly as parents. We must give our kids permission to experience their emotions, and at times even allow them to cry. And then we must help them learn how to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives in a healthy way.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!