Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shavuot: Making Room for Silence

If we want to hear God’s voice, we must learn to keep silent.

This coming Saturday night we will celebrate Shavuot, which our Rabbis called z’man matan Torahteynu—the time of the giving of the Torah.  The festival marks the high point of Jewish history, the moment when we stood together to hear God’s word at Mount Sinai.

A time of high drama, to be sure.  And yet, the Talmud suggests that revelation did not end there.  The Rabbis insist that God still speaks to us: “Each and every day the Divine Voice issues forth from Sinai” (Avot 6:2)

So if the Holy One continues to reveal the Sacred Word to us, what was so special about the events commemorated by Shavuot?   A passage from the Midrash notes that the difference was the utter silence which preceded God’s Ten Utterances:
R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Yohannan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, not one of the angels said, “Holy, holy, holy!”  The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak—the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth: “I am the Eternal your God.”

In other words, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time is because the noise, static, and muzak of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  Only at the time of the “giving of the Torah” did God “silence the roar.” At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along. 

Often, as we imagine the giving of the Torah, we think of the pyrotechnics: thunder and lightning and fire.  But the key ingredient for hearing God is, in fact, silence.  Elijah learns this when the Holy One pays him a visit in a cave where he is hiding on Mt. Carmel. 
As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a still, small voice.”

In our high-tech culture, so noisy and full of distractions, Shavuot reminds us that Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down.  The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always.  But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly.

Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen!  This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One.  The Psalmist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.”  The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.

So, this week, try to make some time for silence.  Still the noise, within and without, even if just for a moment or two.  And then listen for the voice of conscience and spirit—the sound of God speaking to you.

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