On the night of April 11, 1956, a band of Palestinian terrorists entered the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad. They made their way to the synagogue of the local agricultural school, where the school’s young students were in the midst of the evening prayers, and raked the room with fire from their Karl-Gustav rifles. They reaped a cruel blood-harvest: five children and one teacher were killed and another ten children wounded, their pure blood soaking the prayerbooksthat fell from their hands and splattering the synagogue’s white-washed walls.

The residents of the village, many of whom had escaped the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and the Stalinist years of terror, were shattered. A large number of the students’ parents traveled to Kfar Chabad to take their children home, to the point that the administrators of the school were considering to shut it down entirely. Some proposed that the fledgling village be disbanded—that it was simply too dangerous to live there. Despair and dejection pervaded the village and began to eat away at its foundations.

The Rebbe’s responses, which came in the form of a telegram sent upon the close of the shivah (week of mourning) and numerous follow-up letters, infused life, vitality, and hope into the village. The prevalent theme of the Rebbe’s communications was: Your response to the murders must be to continue to build, to continue to expand your educational activities, to continue to grow both materially and spiritually. This will be your response to the evil of the terrorists, and in this you will find consolation and strength. The Rebbe also dispatched a delegation of twelve rabbinical students, as his personal representatives, to spend time in Kfar Chabad and visit other communities throughout Israel and convey his message of encouragement.

There were two striking things about the Rebbe’s response. The first was his delay in communicating to the stricken village. Many wondered: Why did the Rebbe wait a full week before sending his message of encouragement?

In addition, many expected the Rebbe to offer some sort of theological “explanation” for the tragedy. This he steadfastly refused to do. All inquiries along the line of “why did this happen?” were met with silence.

The Rebbe himself explained his behavior in a number of letters, as well as in a public talk he delivered a few weeks after the incident.1

In one letter, the Rebbe wrote:

It appears from your letter that you are wondering why I did not write immediately following the event. Yet the Torah attests regarding Aaron the High Priest that “he was silent.” Certainly, and how much more so, should it be so in our case.2

The Rebbe is referring to the episode, related in the 10 chapter of the Book of Leviticus, where Aaron’s two sons tragically died on the day of the Sanctuary’s inaugurations. The Torah related that “Aaron was silent,” indicating that at the moment of tragedy, the only appropriate response is silence.

In another letter, this one in response to someone who proposed a theological explanation for the tragedy, the Rebbe again cited Aaron’s silence as the appropriate model to emulate. The Rebbe was quick to add, however:

The above applies only regarding any attempt to explain the tragedy. But as far as the outcome necessitated by the tragedy is concerned, our response is clear. Beginning with the experience of our forefathers in Egypt thousands of years ago, every affliction in Jewish history has its response explicitly spelled out (Exodus 1:12): “As much as they afflicted them, so much did they increase, and so much were they strengthened.”3

The Rebbe’s behavior in this incident serves as a key lesson in responding to news of tragedy.

The most helpful thing we can do for those who suffer loss, particularly in the first hours and days, is to simply be there for them. We may have words of wisdom to share, but that is not what the mourners need from us at this moment. They not yet ready for the pain of loss to be mitigated, and to attempt to do so can in fact be experienced as an affront to their loss. Rather, what they need from us at this point is simply for us to share in their sorrow.

As Maimonides writes in his code of Jewish law, “We do not relate teachings of Torah law or homiletic insights in the home of a mourner. Instead, we sit in grief.” Maimonides also rules that those who come to visit the mourner “are not permitted to say anything until the mourner speaks first.”4

I remember hearing a therapist lecture on the topic of how to deal with others’ losses. He related that he once traveled for four hours to visit a friend in mourning. The entire way he was thinking of something to say. How could he bring comfort to his friend who was in such pain? When he got there he still hadn’t come up with anything wise, so he decided to say nothing. After sitting in silence for a while, he said the prescribed prayer of condolence and left for home. Half a year later, he met up with his friend, who told him: “I want you to know that your condolence call made such a difference to me. I was so touched that you traveled all the way to my home without saying a thing to me. You obviously came simply to be with me and share in my pain, and that was very comforting.”