Aaron the High Priest was silent in the face of his son’s death, “vayidom Aharon”. We therefore don’t really know what he felt, whether anger, intense pain, or sadness, or perhaps a combination of emotions. It is a poignant moment when his innermost feelings are kept private from us.
In contrast to Aaron, we know the feelings of Judah Leon Abravanel, the son of Don Isaac Abravanel, on the loss of his son, who was forcibly converted by the King of Portugal in 1496, never to be seen again. Judah lamented the horrific loss of his son in the poem, Telunah Al Ha-Zeman. He wrote, “Twelve years have passed since I have seen my child. I can find no rest, no comfort…The memory of him has robbed me of sleep. I have hung my harp on the weeping willow, transformed my song into lamentation.”
Aaron and Abravanel responded to personal tragedy in very different ways. Aaron was silent, while Abravanel wrote. In doing so, they demonstrated to us that there is no one way to mourn. Some choose to express their feelings, while others prefer to grieve in silence. Every person reacts to loss in his or her own way.
For this reason Rabbi Yosef Karo ruled that at a mourner’s home, a comforter must wait for the mourner to initiate conversation before speaking (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 376:1).
This allows the mourner to set the tone, whether they wish to sit in silence or to reflect upon their loss with others. In this way, we empower mourners to mourn in the manner most fit for them.
Perhaps then, this is why at a shivah, Sephardim part with the words min Hashamayim tenuhamu, “may you be comforted from Heaven”, and Ashkenazim with the consolation Hamakom yenachem etchem, “may the Omnipresent comfort you”.
Both invocations pray that God comfort the mourner. We pray so, because none of us truly knows what is in another’s heart. We therefore pray that God console the mourner in the ideal manner for them that only God can know.
During these difficult days, when so many in our community and throughout the world are mourning, we pray that they find the comfort that they need.