by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
In the course of any life there are moments of awe and amazement when, with a full heart, you thank God shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazeman hazeh, “who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.”
Two that particularly stand out in my own memory were separated by almost ten years. The first was the Lambeth Conference at Canterbury in 2008. The conference is the gathering, every ten years, of the bishops of the Anglican Communion – that is, not just the Church of England but the entire worldwide structure, much of it based in America and Africa. It is the key event that brings this global network of churches together to deliberate on directions for the future. That year I became, I believe, the first rabbi to address a plenary session of the conference. The second, much more recent, took place in October 2017 in Washington when I addressed the friends and supporters of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the world’s great economic think tanks.
The two gatherings could not have been less alike. One was religious, Christian, and concerned with theology. The other was secular, American, and concerned with economics and politics. Both of them, though, were experiencing some kind of crisis. In the case of the Anglican Church it had to do with gay bishops. Could the Church accommodate such people? The question was tearing the Church apart, with many of the American bishops in favour and most of the African ones against. There was a real sense, before the conference, that the communion was in danger of being irreparably split.
In Washington in 2017 the issue at the forefront of people’s minds was quite different. A year earlier there had been a sharply divisive American Presidential election. New phrases had been coined to describe some of the factors involved – post-truth, fake news, flyover states, alt-right, identity politics, competitive victimhood, whatever – as well as the resurfacing of an old one: populism. It all added up to what I termed the politics of anger. Was there a way of knitting together the unravelling strands of American society?
The reason these two events are connected in my mind is that on both occasions I spoke about the same concept – the one that is central to this week’s parsha, and to biblical Judaism as a whole, namely brit, covenant. This was, in the seventeenth century especially, a key concept in the emerging free societies of the West, especially in Calvinist or Puritanical circles.
To grossly simplify a complex process, the Reformation developed in different directions in different countries, depending on whether Luther or Calvin was the primary influence. For Luther the key text was the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul. For Calvin and his followers, however, the Hebrew Bible was the primary text, especially in relation to political and social structures. That is why covenant played a large part in the (Calvinist) post-Reformation politics of Geneva, Holland, Scotland, England under Cromwell, and especially the Pilgrim Fathers, the first European settlers in North America. It lay at the heart of the Mayflower Compact (1620) and John Winthrop’s famous “City upon a Hill” speech aboard the Arbella in 1630.
Over time however, and under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the word “covenant” was gradually supplanted by the phrase “social contract.” Clearly there is something similar between the two, but they are not the same thing at all. In fact, they operate on different logics and they create different relationships and institutions.
In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. It is more like a marriage than a commercial transaction. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about “Me” and “You”; covenants are about “Us.”
What makes the Hebrew Bible revolutionary in political terms is that it contains not one founding moment but two. One is set out in 1 Samuel 8, when the people come to the prophet Samuel and ask for a king. God tells Samuel to warn the people what will be the consequences. The king will take the people’s sons to ride with his chariots and their daughters to work in his kitchens. He will take their property as taxation, and so on. Nonetheless, the people insist that they still want a king, so Samuel appoints Saul.
Commentators have long been puzzled by this chapter. Does it represent approval or disapproval of monarchy? The best answer ever given was provided by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes, who explained that what Samuel was doing at God’s behest was proposing a social contract precisely on the lines set out by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan. People are willing to give up certain of their rights, transferring them to a central power – a king or a government – who undertakes in return to ensure the defence of the realm externally and the rule of law within. The book of Samuel thus contains the first recorded instance of a social contract.
However, this was the second founding moment of Israel as a nation, not the first. The first took place in our parsha, on Mount Sinai, several centuries earlier, when the people made with God, not a contract but a covenant. What happened in the days of Samuel was the birth of Israel as a kingdom. What happened in the days of Moses – long before they had even entered the land – was the birth of Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God.
The two central institutions of modern Western liberal democracies are both contractual. There are commercial contracts that create the market; and there is the social contract that creates the state. The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. But a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but rather about the bonds of belonging and collective responsibility. As I put it in The Politics of Hope, a social contract creates a state. A social covenant creates a society. A society is the totality of relationships that do not depend on exchanges of wealth and power, namely marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities and voluntary associations. The market and the state are arenas of competition. Society is an arena of co–operation. And we need both.
The reason that the concept of covenant proved helpful to the Anglican bishops on the one hand, and the American Enterprise Institute on the other, is that it is the supreme example of a bond that brings together, in a single co-operative enterprise, individuals and groups that are profoundly different. They could not be more different than the parties at Mount Sinai: God and the children of Israel, the one Infinite and eternal, the other, finite and mortal.
In fact the very first human relationship, between the first man and the first woman, contains a two-word definition of covenant: ezer ke-negdo, meaning on the one hand “a helper” but on the other, someone “over-and-against.” In a marriage, neither husband nor wife sacrifice their distinctive identities. At Sinai, God remained God and the Israelites remained human. A symbol of covenant is the havdalah candle: multiple wicks that stay separate but produce a single flame.
So covenant allowed the Anglican Communion to stay together despite the deep differences between the American and African churches. The American covenant held the nation together despite, in Lincoln’s day, a civil war, and at other times, civil and economic strife, and its renewal will do likewise in the future. In Moses’ day it allowed the Israelites to become “one nation under God” despite their division into twelve tribes. Covenants create unity without uniformity. They value diversity but, rather than allowing a group to split into competing factions, they ask each to contribute something uniquely theirs to the common good. Out of multiple Me’s they create an overarching Us.
What made these two experiences in Canterbury and Washington so moving to me was that they showed how prophetic Moses’ words were when he told the Israelites that the Torah and its commands “will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deut. 4:6). Torah continues to inspire not only Jews but all who seek guidance in hard times.
So, if you find yourself in a situation of conflict that threatens to break something apart, whether a marriage, a family, a business, a community, a political party or an organisation, framing a covenant will help keep people together, without any side claiming victory or defeat. All it needs is recognition that there are certain things we can do together that none of us can do alone.
Covenant lifts our horizon from self-interest to the common good. There is nothing wrong with self-interest. It drives economics and politics, the market and the state. But there are certain things that cannot be achieved on the basis of self-interest alone, among them trust, friendship, loyalty and love. Covenant really is a life- and world-changing idea.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
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The cruelty of war brings out the ugliness in man. After World War I ended, Soviet Russia, hoping to advance through the Baltic States in order to bring about a Socialist revolution in Germany, attacked in November 1918 and conquered three-quarters of Estonia's territory. They imprisoned many of the top-ranking officers to the lowly soldiers of the army, sending them to a favorite Soviet Hell spot, Siberia. Many of the top-ranking officers would be forced and subjected to clean toilets and perform demeaning janitorial jobs in these work camps. It was a military tactic, and quite effective at that, of the Russians to demoralizes them.
It was there that a Jew, an inmate in this horrific camp who survived the hell, who was able to tell over an incident that occurred in the prison barracks a story which is equal parts peculiar and extraordinary. The Jew, a light sleeper, would notice one of the Latvian prisoners get up in the middle of the night and reach out to a duffle bag under his bed. He then would put on his old general's uniform that was folded neatly in the bag. It was a sight to see and, frankly, comically weird, as this prisoner of war walked to the mirror, decked out in full uniform, and saluting. He would mumble as if he is giving orders to his subordinates. This would occur nightly. The Jew once had an opportunity to ask this particular prisoner about his midnight antics. The ex-general replied firmly. "Here I'm in prison but this is not the reality. The reality is I am a general; this is who I am. I am not a janitor." The prisoner, the ex-general, cannot accept his new status. It was obviously a tremendous down grade of the respect honor and importance of what he was.
In this week's parsha, the Israelites are slaves to the Egyptians. The Israelites were persecuted and were over worked to say the least. They were forced to work even on Shabbat until Moshe intervened and persuaded Pharaoh for a day of rest "to rejuvenate" during the week. As we begin the book of Shemot and find our ancestors in an unfortunate predicament, we disclose something very unusual and against, for the most part, human nature. G-d proclaims that the redeemer is finally here and it's Moshe. He will pilot the Hebrews out of Egypt into the promise land. There is only one problem. The leader of the Jewish people is none other than his older brother Aharon. Well, guess who has to step down.
Interestingly, what we see from the pasuk is quite extraordinary on Aharon's part. Not only does he step down and gives over the mantle to Moshe, he is SAMEACH BEHLIBO -he is happy in his heart. The narrative probes Aharon's heart and we discover not only he's okay with it but he is ecstatic. However, it seems Aharon is clearly downsizing his ability. To give up power for the sake of the greater cause is extraordinary.
My articles are generally "feel good" material about our heritage; I hope I infuse an entertaining educational publication. Besides that, it's also about self-improvement and how to better ourselves as individuals as well as how can we improve ourselves on a national level. The goal is to accelerate in one direction and that is up. To downgrade our abilities is not an option. We are born with a sea of opportunities and that has to be maximized. We shall not allow anything to hamper our potential!
However, we learn a powerful lesson about life from Aharon. For it is quite common that one has to downgrade his status in this world. Although, it is bold and politically incorrect, a writer's death seal - chas vesholom - is to write about reversal of fortune. We tend to gravitate toward the rock 'em sock 'em go get 'em positive outlook that one wants and is exited to read. However, I felt compelled to write on this important topic because this is reality! It's important to know. There are times where we have to paddle back with the hope to eventually move forward. Or maybe, there is no more moving forward and the test is to deal with the predicament. Perhaps facing setbacks is growth.
It pained me to see many of my Jewelry comrades after enjoying a great run of success, especially during the Obama Presidency, having a reversal of fortunes. They would give me a tour, with pride, of their big luxurious offices, with many employees, only after a span of 5 to 10 years, to let go of the majority of them and move to smaller confines. Unfortunately, this is quite common!
Rabbi Ginsberg spoke at the funeral of Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt'l and he said something quite astonishing which I will never forget. He said that, towards the end of his time in this world, Rav Henoch confided in him and told him the most difficult decision in his life was to step down as head of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. Although he was not well and it was evident that he was no longer able to go through the daily rigorous work load of a Rosh Yeshiva - Head Task Master, and even though he handpicked his successors himself, he found it agonizing to step down. Yes, it's true that he nurtured and built the Yeshiva every step of the way and made it into formidable Torah institution. Nevertheless, he had a hard time pulling the trigger. Here is a giant in Torah who instilled in his students, it was the motto of the Yeshiva, to refine their character, yet he had difficulty giving up the power. It should be noted that many Torah leaders were not able to pull the trigger and pick a successor in their lifetime and their followers suffered the consequences. We learn how downright challenging it is to give up power. It is absolutely tough to say, "I'm not the go to guy anymore!" Is the reason a case of maintaining honor?
It would be unprecedented and illogical to say that the reason why many of our leaders and great Torah G-d fearing people are reluctant to give up power for honor sake. There is a mindboggling Midrash that will have one raise his eye brow on the transition of power between Moshe and his successor Yehoshua.
The Midrash states: "Moshe said to God: Master of the World, let Yehoshua take my crown and I shall live. God said to him: Act with him as he has acted with you. Moshe immediately went to the house of Yehoshua... They went out, and Moshe walked on the left of Yehoshua... At that time, Moshe cried and said: Better a thousand deaths than one jealousy." (Devarim Rabbah 9:19).
In other words, Moshe asked Yehoshua what G-d told you in the prophecy. Yehoshua replied I cannot disclose that information. Moshe cried out that a thousand deaths would be better than to live longer and not be the leader. There are those who say that Moshe was not condemned to die in the desert - rather that he could not be the leader of the people in the Land. He had the opportunity to enter the Land as a "citizen", but preferred death to the jealousy of living under Yehoshua's rule. Moshe was considered Mr. Humble par excellence. How can he not see his loyal student take over? Why was it so difficult? Could it be that Moshe was seeking honor? Was holding on to power so difficult to let go? Was he that power hungry?
Another bizarre incident where we find holding on to power is King Shaul. A request from King Shaul to the Prophet Shmuel. Shaul had been berated by the Prophet Shmuel for not listening to G-d command. He was then informed that G-d had become disgusted with him and would terminate his reign. Shaul then requested, "Show me honor before the elders of my people and before Israel" (l Shmuel 15:30)
Of what use is this meaningless honor? Had he not been informed that he lost his regal stature? This from Shaul the prime example of humility, of whom Shmuel testified, you are very small in your eyes (l Shmuel 15:17) who hid in the kitchen to avoid being chosen as king! Before he was anointed he refused the position. The answer is that Shaul understood one's urgent need to retain some remnant of his former regality in order to slow his descent. His plea to Shmuel is not to abolish the decree but to slow its effect so that he not becomes easy prey for his evil inclination. He begged Shmuel to cushion his fall so he would not become shattered by the impact of the terrible news. We learn that power has an enticing element. After Shaul retained the Kingdom and all its glory he realized that power is very gratifying. One has to ask gratifying in what sense. One must be forced to say that perhaps the reason wants to retain power stems not from selfish negative intentions.
A number of weeks ago, we read the story of Chanukah and about our heroes, the Maccabees. G-d had mercy on the Jews and our heroes prevailed. We all have that sense of pride of what Mattisyahu and his sons accomplished. It was a magnificent display of courage, belief in G-d and national pride; Kol HaKavod to them. Little is written about the Maccabees. Surprisingly, only one side of a page is written about them in Tractate Shabbat, while a whole tractate and a Megila is dedicated to the holiday of Purim. Why is that so?
In the Torah, nothing is coincidence. There is always a reason why things are the way they are. Chanukah always falls out on the week when we read about the story of Yehuda and how he earned the right to be the leader of the brothers. The bracha of our patriarch Yaacov not only crowns Yehuda as royalty, but his descendants as well. The kingdom is only to come out from Yehuda. Only under the extreme dire situations should Israel alter this tradition.
Unfortunately, such was the case with the Maccabees; there was nobody from the tribe of Yehuda at the time worthy to be King. Therefore, Shimon, one of the remaining sons of Mattisyahu, became King temporarily. However, what started out as a noble gesture, even though the original Maccabees were as sincere as one can get, their descendants were not. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Once again, we see that it is very hard to let go of power and kavod, especially when the high position is passed down from generation to generation, and one feels it is mine to inherit.
Our sages informed us that whoever says they are descendants of the Maccabees are terribly mistaken. Because they hung onto the kingdom longer than they were supposed to, all the descendants were wiped out. This was the curse, for they had no business to hang onto the kingdom longer than they did, for the kingdom belongs only to Yehuda. It is evident that they just could not let go of the power. The Maccabees, by hanging on went into a self-destructive mode and are no longer.
Perhaps, one can derive an answer from a fundamental principle that we find in our holy books. The Torah states that humanity was created in the image of G-d - B'Tzelem Elokim. What is it in our nature that is G-d-like? Rashi explains that we are like G-d in that we have the ability to understand and discern. Maimonides points out that the Hebrew words translated as "image" and "likeness" in Bereshit 1:27 do not refer to the physical form of a thing. The word for "image" in Bereshit 1,27 is "Tzelem", which refers to the nature or essence of a thing, as in Psalms 73:20, Maimonides elaborates that by using our intellect, we are able to perceive things without the use of our physical senses, an ability that makes us like G-d, who perceives without having physical senses.
It is our soul that is labeled "Tzelem". For this reason, we are always startled when we find out a person dies, even if the relationship was strictly acquaintance status. Our soul is eternal-Godly and cannot bear to see the body cease to exist.
As we take a step further, there are G-dly traits that we have been incorporated with that we gravitate towards. G-d is MALCHUT-kingship and therefore we're inclined to be attracted to leadership-authoritative roles. We yearn at the possibility of reaching and holding on to that position for when reached, we feel unlimited power, similar to G-d. Humans have a drive to rule; power it is very attractive. How many of us look in the mirror and pretend we are it, the captain of the basketball team, head CEO, Rosh Yeshiva. This is Tzelem Elokim - G-dly trait.
So, it is perfectly normal to have this trait and it is perfectly normal to have that agonizing reaction. Nevertheless, it has to be contained somewhat. We learn from our great Sages "Everything in moderation". "Perhaps", Rabbi Asher Hertzberg suggest, "the remedy to contain the trait of pursuit and hanging on for too long of power, is by having another perspective of Shabbat. The Torah hints by referring to Shabbat as Malchut-kingship. Why is Shabbat called Malchut? G-d said, "do not work on Shabbat". Why don't we work? Because G-d said so. By virtue of Shabbat we are humbled and abandon, for the most part our quest for power. The message of Shabbat is that we relent to one King, one Boss, one Authority and that of course is G-d. We relinquish the controls to the master of the Universe.
In Egypt, we were slaves we were worked to the bones. We cleaned toilets and did all the most humiliating work a slave performs. However, the Israelites kept three things. They kept their Jewish names; they kept their clothes; they kept their language. This was their dignity. Those three things were their uniforms similarly to the Latvia General; just like him, we preserved our reality.
Rabbi Avi Matmon
This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi's Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l, Berrel Wien, Noach Isaac Oelbaum, Asher Hurzberg, Yossi Bilus, Yitzchak Etshalom.
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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.
Rabbi Avi Matmon