Sunday, May 9, 2021

Portion Bemidbar: Silence/Sh'tikah

To experience the Divine, we must learn to embrace silence.

This coming Sunday 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 our sacred origin story, when we stood together to hear Holy One’s word at Mount Sinai.

In some ways, it’s a unique moment in our mythic history—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 be in dynamic relationship with 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 and static 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 the Divine 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 today’s high tech, 24/7 culture with its endless distractions, Shavuot offers a timely reminder 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.


Our midah/character trait for this week is silence—in Hebrew, shtikah.  While some people are naturally inclined to quietude, most of us find it different to still both our tongues and our minds.  Yet this is essential to learning.  As the great medieval Spanish Jewish poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol taught: In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second listening, the third remembering, the fourth practicing, and the fifth teaching others. 

Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Find at least ten minutes every day when you will be silent and seek inner stillness.

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