Dealing with adversity, fear and loss with courage is a lesson we learn from our forefather Aaron. After his sons Nadav and Avihu are struck dead in the Mishkan, Moses offers a quick and puzzling explanation of Aaron's conduct. The Torah says "vayidom Aharon" (Aaron was silent). This does not necessarily mean that he stifled his grief. It may be, as some commentators have it, that Aaron first wept in shock and then regained his composure. But what was going on? There are many reasons given for his sons' deaths. All are plausible and are left for us to ponder.
It takes a certain nobility of spirit to face adversity with courage, audacity and also humility. That is what I perceive from Moses and Aaron. Life often presents rejection, disappointment, threat and even tragedy. It is natural to feel angry, frightened or humiliated and to lash out in response. Judaism does not teach a "turn the other cheek" approach, but it also does not favor angry retorts. We must be deliberate even in a time of challenge, acting with principle and pursuing peace.
Just as my rabbis implored upon me, I do similarly. We are constantly told that the Torah tells us how to live our lives, yet it is hard to envision concrete modern day examples. Here we see the aegis of one of the fundamental concepts of our mourning practices. During shiva, Jews do not extend greetings. When you initially encounter or greet a mourner, "you" are silent; let them utter the first words. Simply being there is sufficient. We are there to share grief, not exchange pleasantries. Aaron is our model-"Aaron was silent," even in his deepest grief.
Two of the most noted contemporary writers on Jewish mourning practices are Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University, one of my mentors and the author of "A Time to Mourn, a Time for Comfort," and Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning." Lamm's work is, in my opinion, the most concise and authoritative work on a subject that will affect all of our lives.
As if he were talking about Aaron, Dr. Wolfson notes: "However, the mourner is not obligated to rise from his or her chair to greet any visiting comforter. This is perhaps the clearest indication to all that the normal roles of host/hostess and guest are inverted during shiva." (pg. 169)
Rabbi Lamm continues in the identical vein: "...the shiva visitation, is the time that is ripe for the beginning of the mourner's verbalization of his feeling of loss. Here too, the rabbis urge the visitors to sit in silence until the bereaved desires to speak." (pg. 101)
It is almost as if I can hear Dr. Wolfson saying, "There is no right or wrong, our forefathers are our guides." What better role model than Aaron?
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham