There’s a quote inaccurately attributed to both Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain which reads: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Witty, but is it true? Ought we keep our mouths shut? Is that what we should advise our kids? The answer, like all real answers, is that it depends.
In this week’s Torah reading of Shemini, Aharon remained silent in the face of unspeakable tragedy after his sons Nadav and Avihu were killed after bringing a “strange fire,” an eish zara, as the mishkan was being dedicated. The Midrash famously rewards Aharon’s stoicism, explaining that the next commandment that Hashem gives is addressed exclusively to Aharon. But remaining in an Aharonesque silence may not always be the optimal path.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams warn us that “silence often starts when we choose not to confront a difference.” As both individuals and groups, we can remain quiet in situations at work (and, I would add, at home too) because we don’t want to rock the boat. But this is ultimately not helpful, neither for the issue nor for us. As Perlow and Williams note, “silencing doesn’t resolve anything; rather than erase differences, it merely pushes them beneath the surface.” This rings true: the English lit nerd in me thinks of “A Poison Tree” by William Blake, a poem which begins “I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end.” If we keep feelings inside, they can ruin our relationships. Perlow and Williams worry that doing so will lead to a “destructive spiral of silence,” where things start to trouble us even more, yet we keep bottling up our feelings out of fear or defensiveness. I can think of several times in my work and home life where such behavior has not helped me.
So when should we keep quiet? Well, when it’s too late to do anything else. This is the silence of Aharon. This was also the reaction of David HaMelech after his baby son died. When the baby — the child of his affair with Batsheva — was ill, David prayed and fasted; after the baby passed away, as David explained to his courtiers, there was nothing left for him to say or do: ha-uchal le-hashivo od, he asked, “can I bring him back?” Sometimes all we can do is remain silent. But other times we cannot and should not.
Perlow and Williams urge us to find the courage to speak up and present information in a way that those we are confronting can absorb. Knowing that others need us as much as we need them, explain the authors, empowers us to find that courage. That advices applies not only to a supervisor in the workplace, but to a spouse, a parent, or a child as well. As we commemorated Yom HaShoah this week, our Middle School students at the North Shore Hebrew Academy heard from Devorah Schachter-Kieffer, who told the amazing story of Hiram Bingham IV, a State Department operative who saved some 2500 lives because he spoke up (and likely lost his job as a result). Our Elementary Schoolers heard from Mrs. Ruth Zimbler, a Viennese refugee who was saved by the kindertransport. Mrs. Zimbler urged her audience “not to be bystanders,” but to say and do something to confront injustice.
This vital lesson Pastor Martin Niemoeller underlined years ago when he bemoaned the fact that he did not speak up for anyone else — and then when they came for him, “there was no one left to speak for me.” It’s important to remember that silence has its time and its place — but speaking up does too.