• The Sound of Silence

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    Musicians manipulate it. Comedians play it up. Actors, politicians, kids and their parents all have some intuitive sense of how to convey deep and powerful messages using this one simple technique - silence. Whether it's a pregnant pause, an upbeat syncopation, a raised eyebrow or a baby's silent scream, or a dramatic silent pause, well-placed silence speaks volumes.

    It seems that quiet and silence have become extinct. One of the hallmarks of modern life, at least for those of us who live in major urban areas, is constant noise. Yet the rabbis of Israel, the sages of the Talmud, valued silence as a vital factor in life. Rabban Gamliel stated: "All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence." The Talmud stated that a good word is worth one shekel but that silence itself is worth two shekels. The holy men of Israel advanced the idea that penance for sin can be achieved not only by fasting from eating food but more beneficially by fasting from speaking - by silence and its mood inducing power of self-analysis and introspection. Rabbi Yosi Bilus adds, we have one mouth and two ears, G-d's hinting to us Listen twice before you talk. It seems like silence is preferred.

    However, Jewish sources define the human being as "the speaker". The ability to communicate is central to human function. Speech allows us to express our feelings, develop our emotions, explain concepts, influence other people and strengthen relationships. It translates the phrase "and man became a living soul" as "and man became a speaking soul". Words create. Words communicate. Our relationships are shaped, for good or bad, by language. Much of Judaism is about the power of words to make or break worlds. Judaism is a very verbal culture, a religion of holy words. Through words, G-d created the universe: "And G-d said: 'Let there be . . . and there was'." According to the Targum, it is our ability to speak that makes us human.

    "HAKOL KOL YAAKOV" is a slogan attributed to us, hinted to the future Jewish nation, when Yitzchak blessed Yaacov, He said the voice is Yaacov's. The Sages attributed that Yitzchak was saying something deeper. We learn that the Jewish strength is his voice. That is our weapon. It is certainly not our physical strength. Why then would the sages suggest that silence is a value worth pursuing? Isn't silence the absence of speech?

    One of the additional aspects of the Exodus, mentioned in this week's parsha, was that the dogs in Egypt remained silent during the plague of the Death of the Firstborn. When Moshe informed Pharaoh about the impending Tenth Plague, the Death of the Firstborn, he adds: "There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt, such as there has never been and such as there shall never be again. But against all the Children of Israel, no dog shall sharpen his tongue, against neither man nor beast, so that you shall know that G-d will have distinguished between Egypt and Israel."

    Our Sages tell us that, as a reward for their not barking and their display of respect for the Israelites and allowing the Jews to leave without the annoyance of any disturbance, the Torah awarded the dogs with a specific type of non-kosher meat. The meat of an animal injured by a predator is called treifah. "Do not eat flesh that is torn off in the field. Throw it to the dogs." Our Sages (Mechilta, cited by Rashi) state that this was the reward for not barking when the Jews left Egypt. But that's not all. The reward for the dogs is repeated again (22:30) and the very next verse (Exodus 23:1) it says: "Do not utter a false report." What is the connection between the two verses?

    Even more so, the meat and potatoes of the dog's reward is that in the World-to-Come, dogs will lead in singing the praises of the Almighty, as we said earlier. They will say to other creatures "Come! Let us prostrate ourselves and bow, let us kneel before G-d, our Maker" [Tehillim 95:6] Dogs are aware and bark when the angels of death as well as the Mashiach are present.

    Throughout classical Jewish literature they are portrayed as the most insolent of animals. How could it be, that this very same creature will merit to lead in the singing of praises to G-d in the World-to-Come? What is so special about keeping your mouth shut? And what is so special about what the dogs did?

    Rav Mordechai Ezrachi in his Sefer, Birkat Mordechai, writes that the praise of keeping quiet involves more than merely not speaking slander or gossip. The dogs did not earn this merit by not speaking Lashon Hara. The dogs simply kept their mouths closed. Dogs are known for their attribute of chutzpah [impudence]. Therefore, keeping quiet represented the ultimate defeat of their negative character traits (shviras hamidod). This represented the ultimate self-improvement possible for that creature. It is a significant accomplishment when a person who is an Az Nefesh [having the characteristic of arrogance of spirit] and likes to use his mouth inappropriately overcomes that characteristic and is quiet. Such an accomplishment is deserving of special reward.

    The song of the dogs is that of "Come! Let us prostrate ourselves and bow, let us kneel before G-d, our Maker." We won't act with impudence and insolence. We will bow down and display servitude. The dogs turned their nature around by keeping their mouths closed. It took tremendous power and self-control to accomplish such a change. The lesson for us is that it is not always necessary to say something. It is not always necessary to comment. It is not always necessary to have a remark.

    The same turn around can be accredited to Lot, Avraham's nephew. He did not divulge to Pharaoh that Avraham and Sarah are husband and wife as opposed to brother and sister. If Pharaoh would have discovered that they were married he would have killed Avraham and took Sarah for himself. Lot kept silent even though he would stand to gain many riches if he spilled the beans. Money was his weakness. He went against his nature. As a reward, his offspring turned out to be the lineage of the great Jewish kingdom, King David.

    The passuk of "not even a dog will bark..." is mentioned in both in our parsha and in Parshat Mishpatim. How does it coincide there, and furthermore, why is the very next verse (Exodus 23:1) "Do not utter a false report." What is the connection?

    In Jewish tradition, a barking and yapping dog is symbolic of one who speaks "Loshon hara" (gossip) about others. The Talmud says the juxtaposition of the two verses is not accidental. He who utters a "false report" (even gossip that may in fact be "true") has besmirched the gift of speech, and belongs in the company of annoying, barking dogs. By the dogs not barking G-d is showing that his people have conquered this test of speaking Loshon Hara upon their brethren.

    Returning to the bold statement of the leader of the Sanhedrin, let's analyze the quote of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel: "All my days I grew up among the wise men, and I have found nothing greater (for the body) than silence." (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17). How is silence good for the body? Why not say that silence is good for the soul or for a person in general?

    The Maharal, a 16th century commentator, explains that man is comprised of body and soul (Guf and Neshama), the physical element and the spiritual. Everything man does has its basis in one of these two dimensions. When one dimension is active, the other one is passive. Maharal explains that speech derives from the physical facet of man. When we speak, our physical aspect is controlling us. Silence allows our spiritual dimension to regain control. Since the spiritual mode of man is silence, quiet allows the spiritual to lead the physical, while speaking gives the physical the leading role. The best thing for the body is when it is guided by the soul. Thus, there is nothing better for the body than silence.

    Why is speech derived from the physical facet of man? How is silence the mode for the soul? Silence allows us to remove all of the external and physical distractions in our lives and lets us focus upon the essence of our being, the soul.

    For this reason, the Torah was given in the desert. The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightning and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered G-d not in the whirlwind or the fire or the earthquake but in the kol demamah dakah, the still small voice, literally "the sound of a slender silence." I define this as the sound you can hear only if you are listening. In the silence of the Midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. To hear the voice of G-d, you need a listening silence in the soul.

    When we're alone in the car, do we immediately reach for the radio? Is it any wonder that talk radio is such a booming international business? We are so afraid of silence, so fearful of the opportunity to be with ourselves and penetrate our inner world. However, one doesn't understand it is an opportunity to think.

    Hitbodedut is a classical Kabbalistic term for meditation. The Hebrew root of the word is badad, literally meaning to be alone, to detach yourself from noise and be with yourself. In the more advanced form of this meditation, Hitbodedut is to seclude or separate 'intellectual everyday consciousness from imagination." This is the practice of being alone and simply being with yourself, just yourself without the radio, in silent.

    I have often said this; the best quite time opportunity for me is Shabbat. I wake up very early in the morning, where it's still dark, cup of coffee in hand relaxing alone and doing my version of meditating. It is absolutely exhilarating. "The vehicle for wisdom is silence" (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:13), as King Solomon tells us, "'Closing one's lips makes a person wise" (Proverbs 10:19). Genuine spiritual heights can only be attained through introspection which only comes by dint of the medium of silence.

    A Jew's morning prayer cycles through stages - the Verses of Praise often said aloud or sung; the blessings of the Shema which includes a lot of vocal responsive reading; and the Declaration of Unity itself - which in some congregations, Yemenite for example, is a deafening shout that can literally shake the walls. But when we get to the climax of the prayer service, the top rung of the ladder, the Amida, what do we hear? Nothing. Just lips moving. Our most profound prayer, the private saying of the Amidah, is called tefilla be-lachash, the "silent prayer." It is based on the precedent of Hannah, praying for a child. "She spoke in her heart. Her lips moved but her voice was not heard."

    There are two forms of silence. One is just absence of words and the other is a prerequisite and foundation of effective speech. The first silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence (unlike speech) causes division and separation, creating dysfunction in human relationships. Getting upset and giving someone the silent treatment. When we are offended or hurt, respectful conversation is the only tool to resolve issues and repair relationships. Remaining silent and refusing to talk is a form of aggression and totally ineffective.

    The second is a good silence that creates the platform for effective and positive speech. It allows the goals of communication to be achieved. True communication can only occur when there is mutual understanding and deep respect for each other's position. For this to take place, our words must be preceded and guided by appropriate silence. This means:

    When we are waiting to respond so that we can think before we talk, rather than speak impulsively. To actively listen to someone else without interrupting them so that we can really understand their perspective and that they can feel heard. It is this form of silence that the sage is referring too. Before we can be true to our identity as "speakers and communicators," we must learn the art of good silence. Being quiet when we should talk creates dysfunction and disunity among us. But silence, when timed correctly, is the language of connection. The dogs receive the reward for they went against their nature for the love of G-d.

    Speech is viewed in Judaism as being the ultimate Godly gift to humans. It is truly what separates us from other forms of life on this planet. But it was given to us to be used sparingly and purposefully. Silence was therefore the decorative box that held the gift of speech within it. Sometimes, one receives a gift in a container and the container is as valuable as the gift itself. Then the box should be treasured as much as the gift itself. Silence is such a container for speech.

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Rabbi Avi Matmon


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  • The Candle In The Dark


    In the early phases of Moshe and Ahron’s mission, they were God’s agents to Paroh. But at some point, they had to become agents of the Jewish people as well. That is the point of the first mitzva – Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.

    Rav Hirsch teaches the deep symbolism that belies the mitzva, far beyond a calculation of the calendar dates.

    Rosh Chodesh literally means “beginning of renewals”. There were signs and miracles to try and persuade the Egyptians, and there would be a perpetual sign for the Jewish people as well. Rosh Chodesh was to be the recurring sign that would call for ever fresh rejuvenation out of the night and darkness, immunising the people from the corruption they’d find themselves immersed in, from Egypt to everywhere else.

    The procedure for calling it is human-centric – it requires multiple witnesses, and multiple judges to form a court. For simple declarations, one of each is enough, but more is required for cases concerning relationships. Rosh Chodesh is not an astronomical phenomenon; it is solely dependent on human criteria. It is the court as representatives of the Jewish people that decide when it is or is not Rosh Chodesh.

    The Chagim are all based on when Rosh Chodesh is. Rosh Chodesh is called a מועד, which means a designated meeting time. The מועדים are designated times for a meeting between God and the Jewish people. The meeting is voluntary between both sides, which is the timing is only general, with latitude on our part; the meeting will be by mutual choice.

    It is for this reason that this is the first mitzva communicated to the Jewish people as a whole; the mitzva that binds the relationship between the Jewish people, Moshe, and God.

    The natural phenomena are not the reason. Rather, as each time the moon reunites with the sun, receiving new light, the Jewish people too can find their way back, no matter where they may be, or what darkness they find themselves in. The natural phenomena are the symbol.

    Having delivered word of a fair few plagues already, Moshe is told to go see Paroh again, and the reason he is given is quite bizarre:

    וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ -Hashem said to Moshe, “Go see Paroh, because I’ve hardened his heart”. (10:1)

    What is the cause and effect in the instruction? Why is the fact Moshe is sent related to Hashem hardening his heart?

    The Sfas Emes explains that Paroh’s heart was hardened, meaning his resolve was given the endurance to withstand the plagues. This was the challenge Moshe was sent to address.

    The Sfas Emes teaches that every Jew must know that every hurdle and obstacle they will ever face in life is a challenge straight from God. It is precisely because God is testing you that you must rise to the occasion. When a כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ is placed before us, is precisely when we receive the instruction of בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה.

    There are interesting explanations of how the Plague of Darkness actually took place. On one hand, R’ Avraham Iben Ezra learns that it was a fog so tremendously thick that it extinguished any fire lit within it. He writes that he himself saw experienced such a phenomenon many times near the ocean. Yet the Torah Temima understands that the plague meant that the Egyptians were stricken with severe cataracts. The Vilna Goan explains that darkness is not like we commonly tend to think of as simply the absence of light, but rather a creation in its own right. Hashem however set up the light/dark relationship in such a way that light always wins in a “fight” with darkness. By this makkah, though, that relationship was reversed.

    Rabbeinu Bachaiyei (Bo 10:21) seems to learn a pshat somewhere in the middle. He quotes the Medrash Shemos Rabba (14:1-3) detailing and expounding upon this plague. He mentions the tangibility of the darkness; this darkness was not just the absence of light. Rather, it was an existence in itself that had substance. So thick was it, that during the last three days of the six day duration of this plague, no Egyptian could move a muscle and was frozen in place. (Ralbag writes that Hashem sealed the Egyptians’ noses and mouths. They could not breathe for three days. That they did not die was a miracle. He did this because had the Egyptians breathed in this new, thick dark air, they surely would have died. Being kept alive without breathing for this time was a source of tremendous suffering for them.) Klal Yisrael, however, had plenty of light, not only in Goshen but even when they entered the Egyptian houses to search for valuables.n

    Rabbeinu Bachaiyei explains the nature of this particular darkness. In order for the eye to see light, the light must travel from its source through the air into the eye. This is similar to hearing; the sound waves travel from the source to one’s ear. In other words, air is the medium through which light travels. During the first three days of the plague of darkness, Hashem “sealed” the pathways of the air from allowing passage of light. In the absence of the ability for light to get through the air automatically turns dark. For the last three days, Hashem thickened this dark air so much so that the weight of it did not allow them to move. This was not the case for Klal Yisrael; Hashem did not close the passageways of air for them. They were able to see freely and could go where they pleased.

    In understanding this Rabbeinu Bachaiyei, it would seem that one would need to clarify his words as follows. We cannot say that all the air particles in any specific Egyptians house were sealed off to light. For if so, how could the Jew entering to search for valuables be able to see? On the other hand, to say that the air particles were open to light would mean that the Egyptians would be able to see! One must say that the plague of darkness how we tend to envision it. It wasn’t that the land of Egypt was completely dark. Rather, the air particles immediately and in closest proximity to the individual Egyptian were the ones that were sealed off from light (for the first three days, after which this very air became heavy enough to hinder any movement). It was as if every Egyptian had a heavy, dark shell around his body. But during the day, the land of Egypt itself was as bright as any other country.

    One could comment, however, that according to this the Plague of Darkness effected the Jews as well. Being that the air directly surrounding the Egyptians did not allow light to pass through, all that a Jew saw in looking at an Egyptian was a thick human-shaped black cloud. The Jew would not have been able to see through due to the sealed air. If, for example, the Jew would want to know the identity of the Egyptian whose house he had entered by looking at him, he would not be able to (and those Jews who were able to tell specific Egyptians about the whereabouts of their valuables would have had to have know their identities by other means)! Possibly one could suggest that the air around the Egyptian worked like one-way glass; one side can see through while the other side can’t. The Jews could see the Egyptians while the Egyptians could not see out. The problem with this might be that if the light could not get in to the Egyptians, then it would not be reflecting back towards the Jews to enable them to see the Egyptians.

    The easiest pshat in Rabbeinu Bachayei might therefore be that the air was open for the Jews and closed for the Egyptians. Though this may not make sense in our minds (as we asked above), we can safely throw up our hands and say, “Who is so wise to understand Hashem’s ways!” So writes the Alshich (10:21-23). The Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo explains that all the miracles preformed in Egypt were a testimonial for generations of there being really no such thing as nature, rather everything is Hashem’s doing. The miracles there were a wakeup call to this. After writing this, I found in the Medrash Tehilim (aka Sochar Tov 22:2) exactly this idea. “In the way the world works, can a man light a fire and say, ‘Ploni who is my friend shall benefit from this light, but Ploni who is my enemy will not’?! Rather everyone benefits together. Yet Hashem is not this way. He can shine light to one and place darkness on another.”


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  • The Story We Tell

    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    It remains one of the most counterintuitive passages in all of religious literature. Moses is addressing the Israelites just days before their release. They have been exiles for 210 years. After an initial period of affluence and ease, they have been oppressed, enslaved, and their male children killed in an act of slow genocide. Now, after signs and wonders and a series of plagues that have brought the greatest empire of the ancient world to its knees, they are about to go free.

    Yet Moses does not talk about freedom, or the land flowing with milk and honey, or the journey they will have to undertake through the desert. Instead, three times, he turns to the distant future, when the journey is complete and the people – free at last – are in their own land. And what he talks about is not the land itself, or the society they will have to build or even the demands and responsibilities of freedom.

    Instead, he talks about education, specifically about the duty of parents to their children. He speaks about the questions children may ask when the epic events that are about to happen are, at best, a distant memory. He tells the Israelites to do what Jews have done from then to now. Tell your children the story. Do it in the maximally effective way. Re-enact the drama of exile and exodus, slavery and freedom. Get your children to ask questions. Make sure that you tell the story as your own, not as some dry account of history. Say that the way you live and the ceremonies you observe are “because of what God did for me” – not my ancestors but me. Make it vivid, make it personal, and make it live.

    He says this not once but three times:

     “It shall be that when you come to the land which God will give you as He said, and you observe this ceremony, and your children say to you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and spared our homes.’” (Ex. 12:25-27).

    “On that day you shall tell your child, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8).

    “In the future, when your child asks you, ‘What is this?’ you shall tell him, ‘With a mighty hand, the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the land of slavery.’” (Ex.13:14).

    Why was this the most important thing he could do in this intense moment of redemption? Because freedom is the work of a nation, nations need identity, identity needs memory, and memory is encoded in the stories we tell. Without narrative, there is no memory, and without memory, we have no identity. The most powerful link between the generations is the tale of those who came before us – a tale that becomes ours, and that we hand on as a sacred heritage to those who will come after us. We are the story we tell ourselves about ourselvesand identity begins in the story parents tell their children.

    That narrative provides the answer to the three fundamental questions every reflective individual must ask at some stage in their lives: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? There are many answers to these questions, but the Jewish ones are: I am a member of the people whom God rescued from slavery to freedom. I am here to build a society that honours the freedom of others, not just my own. And I must live in conscious knowledge that freedom is the gift of God, honoured by keeping His covenant of law and love.

    Twice in the history of the West this fact was forgotten, or ignored, or rebelled against. In the 17th and 18th century, there was a determined effort to create a world without identities. This was the project called the Enlightenment. It was a noble dream. To it we owe many developments whose value is beyond question and that we must strive to preserve. However, one aspect of it failed and was bound to fail: the attempt to live without identity.

    The argument went like this. Identity throughout the Middle Ages was based on religion. But religion had for centuries led to war between Christians and Muslims. Then, following the Reformation, it led to war between Christian and Christian, Protestant and Catholic. Therefore, to abolish war one had to move beyond identity. Identities are particular. Therefore, let us worship only the things that are universal: reason and observation, philosophy and science. Let us have systems, not stories. Then we will become one humanity, like the world before Babel. As Schiller put it and Beethoven set to music in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony: Alle Menschen werden Brüder, “All men will be brothers.”

    It cannot be done, at least as humanity is presently constituted. The reaction, when it came, was fierce and disastrous. The nineteenth century saw the return of the repressed. Identity came back with a vengeance, this time based not on religion but on one of three substitutes for it: the nation state, the (Aryan) race, and the (working) class. In the 20th century, the nation state led to two world wars. Race led to the Holocaust. The class struggle led to Stalin, the Gulag and the KGB. A hundred million people were killed in the name of three false gods.

    For the past fifty years the West has been embarked on a second attempt to abolish identity, this time in the opposite direction. What the secular West now worships is not the universal but the individual: the self, the “Me,” the “I.” Morality – the thick code of shared values binding society together for the sake of the common good – has been dissolved into the right of each individual to do or be anything he or she chooses, so long as they do not directly harm others.

    Identities have become mere masks we wear temporarily and without commitment. For large sections of society, marriage is an anachronism, parenthood delayed or declined, and community a faceless crowd. We still have stories, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, but they are films, fictions, fantasies – a mode not of engagement but of escapism. Such a world is supremely tolerant, until it meets views not to its liking, when it quickly becomes brutishly intolerant, and eventually degenerates into the politics of the mob. This is populism, the prelude to tyranny.

    Today’s hyper-individualism will not last. We are social animals. We cannot live without identities, families, communities and collective responsibility. Which means we cannot live without the stories that connect us to a past, a future and a larger group whose history and destiny we share. The biblical insight still stands. To create and sustain a free society, you have to teach your children the story of how we achieved freedom and what its absence tastes like: the unleavened bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery. Lose the story and eventually you lose your freedom.  That is what happens when you forget who you are and why.

    The greatest gift we can give our children is not money or possessions but a story – a real story, not a fantasy, one that connects them to us and to a rich heritage of high ideals. We are not particles of dust blown this way or that by the passing winds of fad and fashion. We are heirs to a story that inspired a hundred generations of our ancestors and eventually transformed the Western world. What you forget, you lose. The West is forgetting its story. We must never forget ours.

    With the hindsight of thirty-three centuries we can see how right Moses was. A story told across the generations is the gift of an identity, and when you know who you are and why, you can navigate the wilderness of time with courage and confidence. That is a life-changing idea.

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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