I was in the unenviable position of having to inform my wife that they found the body of Leiby Kletzky. Her face turned white.
"What happened to him?"
I was silent. I could not bring myself to describe the horrific manner in which this innocent child was brutally murdered. By a Jew. The words, even if whispered in a hushed tone, could not leave my mouth.
"Worse than anything you can imagine… I can't talk about it."
I wasn't the only one who was shocked into silence. The most prevailing response in the 2000 plus comments expressing readers' condolences from around the world was "there are no words." It felt as if the Jewish nation was rendered speechless, reeling from a punch in the gut, unable to grasp such incomprehensible horror.
Our silence in the face of tragedy is reminiscent of Aaron's response to the sudden death of his two sons, budding leaders of the Jewish people, who were cut down in the prime of life. "And Aaron was silent" (Leviticus, 10:3).
Aaron's silence was borne from a total acceptance of Divine will, despite his enormous loss. Our silence, at least in part, stems from denial, the first instinctual response that provides a modicum of safety that our world can remain the same, kids can go to camp unharmed, our Jewish neighborhood is a haven of basically good people. If we don't talk about it, we can push away the weight of grief and horror.
But perhaps the universal reaction of silence hints to something else, something that goes to the core of what it means to be human.
When God creates man, fusing the dust of the earth with the breath of life – a soul, the Torah says "and man became a living soul." The translator Onkelos interprets "living soul" to mean a "speaking spirit." It is our unique ability to speak that makes us truly human. Speech is the bridge that joins the world of thought to the world of action, where heaven meets earth, where the spiritual and the physical – the body and the soul – come together to create the inherent tension point of free will.
Being exposed to unimaginable brutality, graphically described in the reports of Leiby Kletzky's murder, affects us. Evil that had previously not been a part of our world crashes through our psyche's door and penetrates our soul. It chips away at our humanity, leaving us numb to the core. How can any human being commit such crimes?
The result is that we are struck dumb. Speech, the defining characteristic of being human, "goes into exile" as the Kabbalists describe it, because our humanity is shaken. We are less human.
Witnessing such horror and debasement, we have been shocked into silence. But we dare not remain silent.
The last few days I've been walking around in a fog of sadness and grief, as if I have suffered a personal trauma. And I know so many others feel the same.
The Sages of the Talmud tell us the "silence is tantamount to admission." If you don't agree with a proposition or accusation leveled at you, say something. Otherwise your silence speaks volumes.
Witnessing such horror and debasement, we have been shocked into silence, feeling that there are no words, only tears. However, we dare not remain silent. When our speech is in exile, when our humanity has been weakened, we need to do something to restore our humanity, to restore our speech. We need to strengthen and elevate our humanity by activating our souls.
The Talmud (Sotah 2a) instructs one who has witnessed a person accused of immorality to take an extra stringency upon himself in that area, to actively distance himself further from evil, even though he himself has not engaged in any sinful act. Since his reality has been expanded to include something so negative and destructive, he must work on increasing the positive forces in his life to restore the balance.
The word 'mitzvah' (commandment) shares the Hebrew root 'to connect' – mitzvot are the avenue to transcend the physical, remove ourselves from the churning storm of evil, and re-attach ourselves to God and to what is good and true in the world.
I can leave the fog that is encasing me when I reach out to give my children an extra hug, when I choose to be patient and caring, when I choose to get out of my own petty concerns and think about others. Instead of only reeling from this horrific tragedy, let's work to channel our pain and shock towards doing good, strengthening our souls individually and collectively. Taking on a specific mitzvah that speaks to you not only helps to elevate the soul of Leiby Kletzky, it elevates your soul as well.