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The Sounds and Strengths of Silence: Reflections on Silence in the Face of Sacrifice and Tragedy

Schechter’s Executive Vice President, Eitan Cooper, draws us into his thoughts connecting Yom Ha’Shoah, Memorial Day for the Shoah today, and Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel’s National Day of Remembrance for those who have fallen or been killed in defense of Israel. On both days, a siren calls out for complete silence and stoppage of activities. Cooper tells us why he wholeheartedly endorses this.

This week and next week in Israel, the siren blares on Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron, stopping us for a moment of silence to remember tragedy and sacrifice, in preparation for celebrating our independence, achieved 75 years ago after 1,900 years of dispersion.

This is the season for acknowledging: the millions of our people murdered in the Shoah; the many thousands who gave their lives to reestablish and defend our nation in its land; the many civilians who have been victims of an enemy motivated by hatred and revenge.

This idea is amazingly encapsulated in one short verse of last week’s Torah Portion Shemini, in Vayikra (Leviticus) 10:3, which reflects the spirit of these weeks by presenting two responses to the sudden tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon.

As leader, Moshe’s immediate response was to sanctify their deaths:

הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד


“The Lord spoke: I am sanctified by those close to me and glorified by all the people”

Rashi quotes from a midrash in which Moshe adds that Aharon’s dead sons were worthier than Aharon and him, as they gave their lives to dedicate the Mishkan. In this interpretation, the Midrash here defines the model “Kiddush Hashem,” for sanctifying God’s name in the world, which became the historic Jewish response to persecution and tragedy. It is still invoked by our leaders to comfort survivors and motivate others to act by the example of the fallen.

Aharon’s tragedy was far more personal than Moshe’s, as is his response within the same verse:

וַיִּדֹּום אַהֲרֹן

Aharon stood silent

And to me that silence has always felt “right.”

There are times when all words and their meaning seem inadequate, when silence is all there is, and indeed, Rashi uses another midrash stating that Aharon was rewarded for his silence.

As Jews, we know we must speak and seek meaning through words. ללמוד וללמד (Learn and Teach). Holocaust Studies are a very Jewish response to our tragedy. Literally billions of words of research have been published on the Shoa. We study and teach it in schools and institutions around the world “ללמוד וללמד.” Yet we study and teach it knowing that all the research in the world can never really provide an adequate answer to the simple, basic question “Why?”

With no adequate answers available, leaders often offer a third type of response, demonstrated by the Haftara of Parashat Shemini, from the book of Samuel.

While transporting the Ark of the Covenant, Uzza is struck down dead for grabbing hold of the Ark in order to prevent it from falling to the ground. King David’s response to the inexplicable death of an innocent, heroic young man is to become angry with God. As opposed to Moshe’s example of Kiddush HaShem, in the face of difficulties sometimes leaders use anger and indignation to signal and lead the people. Some go further, and seek to blame a common enemy. If that doesn’t work, sometimes they identify a scapegoat to turn people against each other and in doing so profane God’s name, just the opposite of Kiddush HaShem.

At the foot of Mt. Carmel, Eliyahu put to the sword the 400 Prophets of Ba’al that he had already defeated, yet found no answers by meting out justice in this way. He finally found his peace in the silence of Sinai, where he learned to hear “the still, small voice” of God at its source.

The additional lesson from Aharon’s silence and Eliyahu’s bloodlust is to listen for that voice before responding.

This is the season when moments of silence and quietly listening to the stories of Shoah survivors and bereaved families seems “right,” humbling us, providing both inspiration and needed perspective for our own troubles.

The search for truth and for responses to these troubled times begins with silence and listening.

Shavua Tov and Hag Ha’atzmaut Sameach from Schechter

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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