Many, many years ago when I was a student in an afternoon Hebrew school, we would misbehave and cause grief to our well-intentioned teachers. I remember vividly that one day when the teacher left the room, we started to have a catch not with a ball, but with a tefilin bag with tefilin inside of it that gave the bag weight. Our teacher suddenly returned and his face turned ashen when he realized what his charges were doing in his absence. He said nothing. He didn’t have to. We were desecrating that which he felt, and what we should have felt, was holy.
Later we found out that our teacher was a Holocaust survivor, and we immediately sensed the folly of what we had done. He had never spoken about his past; we just assumed he was another teacher to harass. That indelible scene of so many years ago still lingers with me today, and I recalled that event of long ago as I watched Incendies, a film that reminds us of how little we know of the many people who occupy our lives.
Incendies opens with the reading of the will of Nawal Marwan, a Christian woman raised in a turbulent Middle East, where Christians and Moslems war with one another. She has lived in Canada for the past eighteen years as a legal secretary working for one employer, yet her employee barely knows her other than as a loyal and dependable worker. He is now functioning as the executor of her estate and informs her twin son and daughter, Simon and Jeanne, of an unusual request made by their late mother. Her mother wants them to deliver two letters, one to their father, whom they have never seen, and one to their brother, about whom they have never heard. Although her son, Simon, considers this request a sign of his mother’s madness, her daughter sees it as an opportunity to uncover the truth about who her mother really was. She accepts the assignment from the executor and this sets in motion a journey to a war torn country in the Middle East to discover the past of Nawal Marwan.
When Nawal’s son dismisses his mother as unstable and reclusive, he naively assumes that he knows who his mother was. Because of his youthful arrogance and insensitivity, he does not yet understand that his mother’s quiet demeanor, her silence, may have been her strategy for survival.
As the narrative unfolds, we discover that Nawal’s life consisted of unspeakable horrors, and yet she somehow survived and outwardly lived a normal life. Her demons continued to haunt her and her response was silence, never confiding in her children or revealing to them anything about her past.
Jewish tradition echoes her response of silence in the face of tragedy. The mourner in his first meal after the death of a loved one eats a hard-boiled egg, perfectly round, without an opening, without a mouth as it were. This reminds the mourner that in confronting the finality of death, the most appropriate response is silence. There are no words to make things better.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, gave me another perspective on silence that relates to Narwal’s reticence to reveal secrets to her children. Sometimes silence will contribute more to a situation than speech, and that it is often wise to “strangle the shout” than to engage in a conversation, the consequences of which are unclear. Our Sages tell us that “there is nothing better for a man than silence,” implying that sometimes it is through restraint from speech that our goals are best accomplished.