Thursday, 20 Apr 2017

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen

Silence – #oktosay


‘And Aaron was silent.’  Leviticus 10:3


‘You feel like something’s wrong with you…I should be so happy but you can’t help it if, in the morning, when you wake up, you are so tired, you are so sad, you are so full of anxiety and the shakes that you can barely think.’ Lady Gaga


You may be surprised to find the high priest Aaron and Lady Gaga quoted together yet they do share something in common.  Both Aaron and Lady Gaga suffered a trauma but their reactions were markedly different.  Aaron lost his sons in tragic circumstances.  As we re-call in this week’s Torah portion Nadav and Abihu ‘each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire’ (Lev. 10:2).  Because of this act, we are told, Aaron’s boys were devoured by a fire sent from God.  Aaron’s brother, Moses, appears to rub salt in Aaron’s raw wound by saying that this was God’s work and a holy act.  What was Aaron’s reply?  The text simply says, ‘And Aaron was silent’ (Lev. 10:3).  No anger is expressed, no tears shed, no conversations had but just silence – a void.  Of course, we know that silence can be healing and that even God can be found in a ‘silent, small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12).  But I don’t believe Aaron’s silence was a healing one.


The verb which describes Aaron’s silence is from the root דמם.  In this context the verb can be translated as ‘to grow dumb’ or ‘to be still/silent’.  In another rendering of this verb it can be translated as ‘to be made silent’ and even ‘to be destroyed’.  And the same root, in other contexts, means ‘to wail’, ‘to groan’, or ‘to lament’.  Aaron’s silence is not therapeutic, it is a sign of trauma, a sign that the violent deaths of his boys has devastated and destroyed him.  He has been silenced.  Suffering from a trauma and any mental illness in silence can be deadly.


Lady Gaga also suffered a trauma and, as a result, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.  In her open letter through her charity, Born This Way Foundation, she talks openly about her mental illness and states, ‘I am starting today, because secrets keep you sick.  And I don’t want to keep this secret anymore.’[i]  Lady Gaga decided to seek professional help, speak out and not stay in the devastating silence which Aaron inhabits.  Speaking out, however, is difficult.  Lady Gaga this week herself, in her conversation with Prince William for the Heads Together Campaign, spoke about how nervous she was in talking about her mental illness.[ii]  She and Prince William spoke about the stigma attached to mental health issues even though, in the words of Prince William, ‘we all have mental health’ and we should be able to talk about it as comfortably as we do with physical health.


In fact, it is shocking that a recent YouGov poll showed that four out of ten (42%) men have had a conversation recently about mental health compared to six out of ten (58%) women.[iii] The figures also show that men (29%) are less likely than women (37%) to expect to talk about their mental health in the next six months although men and women find these conversations equally helpful (83%).  These percentages are shockingly low.  The Heads Together Campaign seeks to share the message that ‘two heads are better than one’, that it is #oktosay, and that good conversations can really make a difference.


The power of a conversation can be seen with the story of Nadav and Abihu.  One midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 20:8) states that one reason for the death of the two men was because ‘they did, each man according to themselves, and they did not take counsel from each other.’  These young men did not reach out to each other and discuss their concerns but instead acted alone and were devoured by fire.  We can read this story metaphorically and see that by not seeking help, or counsel, they became devoured by their own fire and were destroyed.


Judaism is very clear in highlighting the importance of conversation and community.  As Martin Buber, the 19th/20th Jewish philosopher wrote, ‘all real living is meeting’.  We live through and with others.  We understand the saying in Pirkei Avot/Sayings of the Fathers that ‘when ten sit to study Torah together, the Divine Presence rests among them’ (3:6).  God rests in and between us.  All of the laws in the Torah, such as concerning sacrifices and food (both of which can be found in parashat Shemini), seek to join us in community – to be with others.


Our challenge is to not only heed this call to be in community but to ensure that we and others do not remain silent within community.  It is possible to be alone and isolated whilst in company.  We should not be ashamed to talk about our mental health, those mornings when it feels impossible to get out of bed and complete even the simplest of tasks.  Let us embrace Lady Gaga’s bravery in stepping forward, encourage the Aaron within us to speak out and seek help, and to ensure that in our communities we are emphatic that it is #oktosay.


Student Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen





The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.