Within minutes of the announcement of the death of Hugo Chávez, the Twittersphere erupted with a scathing flurry of judgments of and commentary about the polarizing leader. Many of them were acrimonious. One particularly callous blogger called Chávez “mercurial, prickish, defiant, and brutal.”
Following the news, I spoke with Rabbi Pynchas Brener. Affiliated with the Unión Israelita de Caracas, Brener is extraordinarily familiar with Chávez’s rule, during which over 50% of Venezuela’s Jews fled the country. (For more on that, Matthew Fishbane’s indispensable story “The Dispossessed” is a must-read.) Naturally, I expected Rabbi Brener to express some relief about Chávez’s nascent absence.
“One should respect the dead,” Brener told me, adding “And, after a few days, we should evaluate his meaning of Chávez to the Jewish community.”
I told him that I thought this was a nice sentiment and that some people (not me, of course) seemed intent on casting judgment about Chávez’s actions during his tumultuous decade-plus of rule.
“Do you know the Torah?” he asked me.
After I gave something of a verbal shrug, Brener reminded me of the story of Aaron. He asked if I was familiar with the phrase: “And Aaron was silent…”
During Leviticus, Aaron was in grief following the death of his sons. While Moses sought to comfort him, the line reveals that Aaron’s reaction was to remain quiet. The idea here–and I’m not a rabbi–is that silence conveys a certain strength, especially in moments when one might be tempted to talk loosely or unnecessarily. Rabbi Brener explained:
When death occurs, maybe we should express condolence, especially his parents who are both living. For parents to lose a child is a terrible thing. Right now is a time to be silent and let time go by and then maybe think about the meaning of Chávez to the Jewish community.
Ladies and gentleman, this is what a rabbi should be.