Shemini: How (Not) to Approach People in Pain

(Originally published on IfNotNow Torah’s Medium account)

“And Aaron was silent.” That’s it. That’s all the Torah tells us about how Aaron, the high priest, reacts to the sudden death of his sons. Those four words, though, push us to think about how we treat people who are in pain or grieving.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer a sacrifice to God. For reasons that aren’t fully explained, the sacrifice is improper, and God kills them on the spot. Moses tries to console Aaron, but Aaron doesn’t respond.

Commentators disagree about the reason for Aaron’s silence. Rashbam, a 12th century French rabbi, asserts that Aaron doesn’t speak because he is concerned with fulfilling his obligations as high priest. By contrast, Abarbanel, a 15th century Portuguese philosopher, argues that he was silent because his heart had “turned to stone.”

I can’t imagine Aaron’s – or anyone’s – grief at the loss of his children, and I don’t know his particular reason for not speaking. Still, his silence resonates with me.

Almost two years ago, I developed a chronic condition in my feet that makes it painful to stand and walk. It’s been incredibly difficult for me to talk about it with anyone, even my family and closest friends. Sometimes, it’s just because I don’t know how to explain the experience to people who aren’t familiar with it. Other times, it’s because I’m afraid that if I start talking about it, I’ll be overwhelmed by how frustrating, depressing, and scary it is to even consider the possibility that I might be in pain forever.

When we hear or suspect that a friend is dealing with something awful, it’s often instinctive for us to start asking questions. We may assume that it’s the best way of showing sympathy, or that that a friend isn’t speaking about their difficulties because they don’t know how, rather than because they don’t want to. Without realizing, we may see them simply as the haggadah’s “child who doesn’t know how to ask.” The haggadah tells us that when dealing with such a person, it’s incumbent upon us to initiate a conversation. But is this really how we should approach people who are in pain?

Maimonides, a 12th century Spanish rabbi, answers, “No.” When discussing mourners, he writes, “One is not permitted to begin a conversation [with a mourner] until the mourner begins one first.” Although the passage specifically refers to mourning, I think it applies more broadly to any kind of personal suffering. Even if we know that someone is in emotional pain, we should let that person open up in their own time. We shouldn’t push them. Obviously, there are exceptions – some situations require interventions – but the principle holds in general.

Maimonides’ statement contains a second, implicit, suggestion about how to support those in pain. When he talks about whether to start a conversation with someone in mourning, Maimonides is referring to people who are already sitting beside the mourner. Often, the most important thing we can do for someone who we know or suspect is in pain is just be present. Rather than force a friend to talk, we should just make sure they know we’re there for them if they want to open up.

In another section of his treatise, Maimonides again displays empathy for people facing adversity: “Everyone is required to stand before a prince, except a mourner or someone ill.” He recognizes that what some might consider the most simple activities, like standing, may be difficult for someone who’s hurting or grieving.

We tend to assume the worst about people when they’re being inattentive, unreliable, or short-tempered. This is especially true in activist spaces, where we may be conditioned to see anyone who takes a step back as lazy or uncommitted. Often, though, these are natural side effects of being in physical or emotional pain. As journalist Paula Kamen writes in her memoir about chronic headaches, All In My Head, “[A] teacher singled me out for not participating…as if I were being rude. In reality, I was using all my energy just to be able to follow the conversation.”

The most important thing we can do for a friend who seems to be acting strangely or who is unusually quiet is recognize that they may be in pain and give them the benefit of the doubt that they have a reason for acting that way. At worst, we’ll let a rude person off the hook; at best, we’ll make someone’s difficult day a little easier. In the words of Ian MacLaren, a 19th century minister, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Aaron’s story reminds us that we rarely know how the people around us feel beneath the surface. This Shabbat, let’s take a few moments to think about how to support our friends who we know are in pain, and how to make sure that friends whose struggles we’re unaware of know that we’re there if they need us. Shabbat shalom.


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