Last week, I visited with an incredible lady with whom I’ve celebrated wonderful moments and stood next to during some extremely trying times. She’s the definition of a matriarch, passionate about her family, fiercely proud of every single one of her children, grandchildren and her brother and his family. Recently, she struggled with a serious, life-threatening illness and asked that I come to speak with her. When I entered her home, it was filled with her family members – lots of great energy, conversation and love. She was sitting on the couch watching all the activity. I sat next to her and we held hands.
“I know you wanted me to visit so we could speak with each other,” I said to her.
“Yes, I did,” she responded, still holding my hand.
After a few moments of silence, I asked her, “Are there any specific things you want to talk about?”
“No,” she said, softly, kindly.
Concerned that she wasn’t able to adequately express whatever it was she wanted to talk with me about, I began to ask her a few questions, asking her if she was in any pain, if she was afraid, angry. To each question she quietly answered “no.” She did admit that she was tired, but it became clear to me that her health was not what she wanted to “talk” about.
In the ancient Jewish book, Pirkei Avot, Rabbon Gamliel’s son, Shimon, said: “All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence.” Silence is so hard for many of us to experience. It can be so uncomfortable, especially if it interjects itself into a situation where we thought we’d be in dialogue with someone. We rush to come up with questions or comments that will fill the silence and get the other person talking. We do this more in response to our own discomfort than the wellbeing of the person we are sitting with. Silence can be so awkward.
But, sometimes, there is nothing better than silence. And as I sat holding hands with this matriarch last week, I realized that what she wanted was to have a silent conversation. This did not mean that my job was simply to sit and hold her hand. A silent conversation can be incredibly insightful if you pay close attention. Without words, the matriarch was teaching me.
I watched her look around the large, open living room that was filled with family members. She gazed into the kitchen, also filled with family members. As she did this, without words, she was saying. “Look at this! Look at what I created. Take it all in with me. This is incredible.” While the house was filled with lots of conversation, in our silent conversation, she sat in awe of her family and shared this moment with me. You could feel her pride, her love. You could also feel the comfort she took, the peace she felt in knowing that what she saw before her was her legacy.
There were moments during our silent conversation when she would wave to one of her family members or connect with another simple physical gesture. While no one approached her, seemingly knowing that she and I were engaged in something special, they all clearly felt the love she was sending them.  “Watch me rabbi,” she seemed to be saying through these waves and gestures, “see how I have a special bond with each of these amazing souls. They are mine and I love them in ways that transcend words.” Again, she didn’t say this. She lived it right before my eyes.
Eventually, some of the family members approached and asked to speak with me individually. The matriarch had let go of my hand. I was free to leave her side. She’d “said” what she needed to say and the next part of the conversation needed to begin. She orchestrated this conversation – the conversation with children and grandchildren who were so overcome with her illness and needed some time to talk about it. Yes, she wanted to “talk” with me and we did that in silence, but she also wanted to give those she loved the opportunity to talk with me. We did that with words and through tears and her silence gave room for these words and tears.
A few days after our silent conversation, this inspirational matriarch slipped away from the world. Her family will continue to thrive and, as a result, her legacy will remain strong. This lesson she shared with me about the power of silence touched me deeply. It was a beautiful reminder of how to connect deeply in this very noisy world. It’s my hope that by sharing this lesson, each of you will embrace the power of silence and, in turn, become part of the legacy of this very special woman, and all of us will do our part to make her memory a blessing.

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