Standing next to the man is a woman. She appears to be of similar age, possibly older. She stands next to the man, her own heartbreak etched on her face, yet she appears confident, with knowing presence. Her left arm is gently but firmly placed on his right shoulder, an indication that she is there, with him in that moment.
Other family members begin to leave the funeral home, and a fresh wave of tears barrage the man. She looks at the family and makes the slightest of motions toward them with her free hand. Her eyes and her hand bespeak more than words can say. She is sending them on their way while indicating that she will stay back with their relative who in this moment is not yet ready to leave. She remains with the man, an eternity of no more than a few minutes, he finds a way to settle himself, to stand up, to take her hand in his, and to begin departing from that most devastating of places.
No words. She has used no words at all. Yet somehow, in the terrible depth of that family's circumstances, he knows that he is safe, secure, protected, and held. She makes no effort to take away any of his pain. She doesn't tell him that it is time to leave. She allows his spiraling emotions to run their course. With her presence, she permits the man to express his most profound grief. She understands that there are no words to describe the most awful truth of his life. There is only her presence. And in that moment, the sense that she is standing by his side is all that the man truly needs.
This week's Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, provides us with a challenging assessment regarding the value of silence and presence. Without being commanded, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, and nephews of Moses, prepare to offer a burnt sacrifice on the altar. The flames consume Nadav and Avihu, burning them alive, a seemingly unspeakable tragedy for the community.
Almost immediately thereafter, Moses calls to have their bodies removed to a location outside the camp,and then speaks directly to Aaron, and Aaron's sons Eleazar and Ithamar saying, "Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought." And then, God piles it on to Aaron, reminding him not to drink wine when entering the Tent of Meeting, and stressing Aaron's obligation to remain a teacher to the Israelites. The only reaction we have from Aaron is presented in two Hebrew words, vayidom Aharon, "and Aaron was silent."
Aaron has witnessed the death of his sons, the removal of their bodies, is told that by not baring his head or rending his clothes that he is not to mourn, and he is reminded to remain a guide for the Israelites, while meandering through the pit of his most extreme sorrow. What is really on Aaron's mind? What is Aaron truly feeling in his heart? What does Aaron need to say, if anything at all? What does Aaron need to hear? His silence speaks unfathomable volumes.
In a contemporary reflection published in the 2008 edition of The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Blu Greenberg shares a powerful personal anecdote:
The word vayidom means more than he kept quiet--vayishtok. Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet, neither does he revolt or protest God's action. Total silence.
Aaron's response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.
A few years ago, in 2002, my beloved son JJ, age 36, was killed while riding a bicycle in israel. He had arrived the night before to celebrate the holidays with the whole family and was bicycling with his brother to visit his sister in Zichron Yaakov, when a young driver ran a yellow light with great speed--and took JJ's life in an instant. JJ loved Israel, family, Judaism, athletics, God, nature, and life; and he was celebrating all of these loves when life was snuffed out.
When my husband and I sat shiva, most people came with no forethought agenda or explanation, though a few--out of good intention and compassion--tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. "He was so good that God needed him by His side" was one such attempt, to which on one occasion--unable to hold back my words--I responded, "But we on Earth need him more!" Most people understood at the deepest level that there was nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. And we ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it....
The Jewish laws of bereavement, so exquisitely tuned to the needs of the mourners, stipulate that the shiva visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy.
Sometimes, the purest form of love isn't verbal. It is an adult sitting in a rocking chair, settling an upset child in his arms, placing his hand gently in the small of the baby's back, kissing the baby's forehead, or tousling the baby's hair. It is the gaze shared by lovers, melting one another's heart. It is children climbing on their father's back for a "horsey ride," and then turning that parent over, and tickling him until he can't stand it anymore. It is hugs and kind, supportive, well-intentioned embraces. It is someone who holds the phone patiently, allowing a person on the other end to cry her deepest truth. It is the gift of presence, when people listen intently as you share and speak or cry the deepest, most vulnerable, and painful truths of your life and when you do similarly for them in their time of need. Sometimes, the purest form of love is the gentle gesture of looking at someone who is sorrowing and placing a hand on our heart or on his shoulder as an act of compassion. And sometimes, as Aaron teaches us, and as Aaron seems to want, that very silent reassuring presence is both everything and the only thing that we need.
 Leviticus 10:1-3
 Leviticus 10:4
 Leviticus 10:5-6
 Leviticus 10:8-11
 Leviticus 10:3
 Blu Greenberg, "Contemporary Reflection: Parashat Shemini," The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 632-633.
 This paragraph is adapted from a personal essay on a separate subject.