There Are No Words

Aaron as the recently invested Kohen Gadol was called upon to inaugurate the newly assembled Tabernacle with a series of offerings, as recorded in the Torah reading of Parshat Shemini[i].

In the midst of the extraordinary proceedings, which included Aaron and Moses blessing the people of Israel, the appearance of the Divine presence and miraculous occurrences, a tragedy occurred. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, took it upon themselves to bring their own personal unbidden offering that had not been commanded by G-d. The consequences were catastrophic and resulted in their untimely demise[ii].

Moses tried to console his thunderstruck brother by praising the boys. He offered they must have been the best of the best, because that was who G-d chose when a sacrifice was needed. Aaron’s reaction was silence[iii]; there were no words.

The power of speech is a Divine gift; but our ability to choose to be circumspect and silent is also ennobling. The Wisdom of the Fathers[iv], records that Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel counseled, there is nothing better for the body than silence and those who increase words bring sin. Rabbi Akiva[v] counseled that a safeguarding fence around wisdom is silence. These concepts are reflected in Solomon’s Proverbs, which notes that when there is too much talking there is no lack of sin and he who curbs his tongue is prudent[vi] and even a fool, if he keeps silent, is deemed wise; intelligent and discerning, if he seals his lips[vii].

My Father Z”L and Father-in-Law Z”L were both miraculous Auschwitz survivors. Their horrific experiences in the Holocaust and the death of much of their family and friends among the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their cohorts left an indelible mark on them. In my Father’s case, this was also tangibly represented by the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm.

Like so many Holocaust survivors, they hardly spoke about their experiences. There were the bits and pieces revealed when we asked questions or when they marked the Yahrzeit of a relative. Sometimes it was just a knowing nod when someone else recounted their personal story.

The 9th of Adar II was the 5th Yahrzeit of my Father-in-law Z”L. To mark the occasion I made a Siyum on the Tractate of Bava Kamma, which we had been studying in the Daf Yomi. The Yahrzeit of my Father Z”L was a few days later on Purim.

The final lines of Bava Kamma[viii] set forth a somewhat prosaic discussion of whether removing what amounts to weeds from someone’s property is deemed to be theft. In general, it is not. After all, who cares about a few weeds. Indeed, it is usually beneficial to have them removed. The Talmud notes though, in some places people are particular about them and then it would be inappropriate just to take them. It concludes that Ravina says in the City of Machasya, people were presumed to care and therefore it would be considered theft to remove them.

The Ben Ish Chai[ix] explains this Talmudic discussion symbolically. He posits that it alludes to a person’s Divine gift of the power of speech. Thus, he notes we must be circumspect in the use of our holy gift of speech. In essence, it must generally be set aside for use in fulfillment of its higher purpose and figuratively should not be stolen in whole or in part by diverting it from that mission. Therefore, use of speech as required in order to earn a living, whether at work or in business, is permitted, as well as to offer cordial greetings when meeting people, as is customary. However, in certain places where people are particular, such as in the Synagogue and Study Hall, it is important to curtail any speech not devoted to prayer or study of Torah. Finally, he notes that there are certain people who are especially esteemed[x], like Rabbis who study and teach Torah and don’t waste any time, who must be even more circumspect and not divert their words to any frivolous activities.

As I read these words, I couldn’t help but reflect on the approaches of my Father and Father-in-law to speech. My Father would counsel that you don’t regret what you don’t say. My Father-in-law would caution that if you talk too much, you are bound to talk stupid. They were two people from disparate places and with very different post-war life experiences. They did share common traditions and great wisdom and what little they said mattered.

As we reflect on the horrible atrocities committed by evil Hamas on October 7th, it is difficult to respond to the Hamasniks again and again as they deny what occurred and yet still manage to shout the horrible slogan that rape is resistance, which contradicts their sordid denials. I can’t help but feel like Aaron that there are no words.

[i] Beginning with Leviticus 9.

[ii] Leviticus 10:1-2.

[iii] Leviticus 10:3.

[iv] Avot 1:17.

[v] Avot 3:13.

[vi] Proverbs 10:19.

[vii] Proverbs 17:28.

[viii] BT Bava Kamma 119b.

[ix] Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, a 19th century Rabbi in Bagdad, in his commentary on the Talmud, known as the Ben Yehoyada.

[x] In a play on words on the name of the city of ‘Machasya’ to symbolize ‘Meyuchus’.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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