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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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