This isn’t about Matisyahu’s shaved face and proclamation. I don’t really care about his journey at the moment. Good luck to him and all that, but there are many larger things going on in the world.
It’s about a very painful situation that I observed. Again, grateful to be an observer and not an active participant. It’s about going to a shiva house where they are mourning for a child. This particular child is the oldest son of my oldest daughter’s best friends from high school, so it’s just too close to home. ISHI and I went yesterday afternoon, just before the time of afternoon prayers. There was just enough time to go sit down, express through our faces how we have no comprehension of how difficult this must be for them all, the grandparents, the parents. Everyone related by knowledge how this is not knowable.
The father is a doctor. You can’t learn this in medical school or experience of anyone else. He likes to smile and he was smiling, more out of discomfort, and was finishing talking to some doctors who had come to see him. They’re all playing dress-up, too young for any of this.
He said to us that G-d told the angels that this is why Man should be created, in order to be able to name all the creatures in the world, and that the angels couldn’t do that. They couldn’t identify the essence of each animal, but Man could. So Man is all about talking. And now he, this boy-man, is silent and silence feels like it’s the wrong response. But he doesn’t have anything to say.
But we responded that silence is the only proper response.
Vayidom Aharon וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן. (Leviticus 10:3 וַיִּקְרָא)
You can read what Rabbi Riskin says about this in light of tragedies that people face, particularly in Israel, and I’ll quote just a bit here.
But if the Bible doesn’t present us with a satisfying explanation, it does provide us with a dignified response: “Vayidom Aharon” – and Aaron remained silent. This restrained and regal silence of Aaron in the face of inexplicable tragedy has reverberated throughout the generations as a signpost for parents silently weeping at the gravesites of their beloved children.
Not that we can understand at all. Ever. We just have to relearn how to live. Without.
The reason why the shiva period is so psychologically astute is that it allows time and structure to lead the mourner back from being on the ground, unable to rise. And so the prayers that are mandated are comfort food for the mourner, familiar speech patterns that help give words to the unknowable. And so this young man, still a kid, who has to mourn the loss of his kid, leads the afternoon prayers. What struck me so powerfully this afternoon was after he finished saying his Amidah, he stepped back his three steps, backing away from G-d. How do you back away? Why doesn’t he stay there?
Because he is still here with us.
And he has more to say.