Parashat Chukat • Numbers 19:1-22:1

Parashat Hukkat – Deafening Silence

I’ve often heard that bad things come in threes. For Moses this week, they certainly do – first, Miriam, his sister, passes away. Then God curses both he and his brother Aaron with not finding their way to the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites. And then Aaron passes away as well. On the face of it, Moses has little to no reaction to any of this. The Torah’s narrator makes no comments clarifying Moses’ response to his entire world falling down around him, but what the narrator and Moses do not say is much louder than words.

Silence in the Torah is often a pregnant one. Much like in jazz, it’s the notes that the Torah doesn’t play that matters. After Moses speaks the words that end up being the reason for his being cursed to not enter the Land with the rest of the Israelites, he does not speak for the rest of the parashah. In fact, the next and last time he speaks in the book of Numbers is only to find a replacement for himself as leader. Otherwise, the one person who has spoken to and for both God and the Israelites is silent.

Earlier on in the Torah when Aaron was confronted with God’s killing of his sons Nadav and Abihu, Moses rebuked him. In response to Moses’ rebuke, the Torah tells us, “Aaron was silent.” The language that Moses used then, in Leviticus 10:3, was strikingly similar to that with which God rebukes Moses in this week’s portion. And, like his brother Aaron, after being rebuked, Moses is silent.

Silence in the face of tragedy, that feeling of turning inside ourselves and no longer engaging with the world outside, is something everyone is familiar with. Moses and Aaron reflect a clear and universal human reaction to personal tragedy. Our tradition, though, bids us to not keep our inner pain to ourselves. Through the tradition of shiva, the seven days after the death of a close relative in which the community comes together to commemorate the lives of the departed and to offer support to the bereft, those plunged mourning are able to share their experience of loss.

We can see these two contradictory approaches to grief as showing us that, in some cases, people may need time alone in their own silence, and in others people may need to air their emotions. An individual in the throes of loss, like Aaron with the loss of his son, and Moses with the loss of Miriam, Aaron and his own future, is one who may not need to be told how to process their grief, but instead, be allowed to share their anguish in their own way.

When our world overwhelms us with tragedy, as it seems to be doing so often these days, we all respond in our own ways. Sometimes silence, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness. Our tradition gives us leeway to react in manifold ways. This freedom not only allows for the diversity of human response, but also demands something of us – to hear the silence of others, to pay attention to this multiplicity in human reactions, to give ear to those who may respond in ways alien to us, and to work to find the elements of human connection between our many experiences of tragedy. Moses and Aaron’s silence bid us to hear the pain of our friends, loved ones, and neighbors in the way that they express it, even if the mode of expression is silence itself.