I have been traveling in Cuba with a Northwestern Hillel alternative student break trip for the past week (you can read a post on the journey at www.nuhillel.org). As we approach the parasha this week, the question of borders is very much on my mind.

Cuba, of course, is a mysterious and exotic place for Americans, because of the unusually high border we have created around it through the embargo of the past 52 years. “Ooh, you’re going to Cuba. I’d love to go there some day,” was the usual reaction I received before the trip. And of course this is a result of Cuba’s otherness, its foreignness. Though not unholy, it partakes of the sensation of zar–strange, other, foreign, which is such a central word in Parshat Shemini: “And the offered a strange fire which the Lord had not commanded” (Lev. 10:1).

One of the ironies of foreignness is the way it is constructed and simultaneously confounded by language. The fire is strange precisely because God has not commanded it. Without a speech act from God, without words to label it as kadosh, holy, it becomes zar, strange. A student asked our guide yesterday what he thought would happen when the embargo is ultimately lifted one day. Cuba and America will stop being strange to one another–Americans may learn something from Cuba, and Cubans will stop blaming America for everything wrong in their own society. A speech act, a change in the law, changes status and changes our perspective, and thereby changes our reality. What was zar can suddently become open and potentially welcome.

The question of speech and foreignness takes us to another short word at the center of Parshat Shemini: vayidom, “and Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). Aaron’s silence is remarkable for a man as verbal as he. He has encountered a reality that defies his ability to categorize, to make sense. It does not, however, mean that he fails to respond. Indeed, Aaron’s silence is pregnant with possibility: what is going through his mind and heart at the moment of such tragedy? What goes unspoken because it defies speech? That which was other, compartmentalized and sealed off, now enters the mainstream: death was not meant to be part of the mishkan, and the death of one’s children is not meant to be part of life. Tragically, both happen. And the reaction defies words.

On Wednesday our group divided into smaller groups to visit families with special needs. One group played ball with a young cancer survivor; another visited an autistic child. My group visited a frail elderly woman and her daughter, homebound in a highly impoverished apartment with little more than a refrigerator, a hot plate, and an old, dusty television in the living room. It was hard to communicate, even for our student who spoke Spanish. The old woman clearly had not had visitors in a while, and she was anxious to talk.

For some of the students, the foreignness of the experience proved highly uncomfortable and challenging. Not only could they not understand the woman; not only could they not express themselves; not only was the experience of poverty beyond their own; but most of all, they felt powerless and directionless. Their sense of place and purpose was entirely upended.

I have been in such situations before, and after about an hour of our visit, I asked (through one of our Spanish-speaking students) whether the old woman remembered any songs we could sing together. She said there was a song that she remembered the tune for, but not words, and she began to hum Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. And so we joined together, standing in the middle of her bare-walled living room in a poor neighborhood in east Havana–an 86-year old, blind and deaf woman, and us, singing a song of hope, a song to which she couldn’t remember the words, but could still remember the tune.

At such moments, speech does not matter. In fact, speech can only get in the way. Silence, song, the simple yet profound act of being with, of recognition, dissolves borders.

Shabbat shalom.