The Sound of Silence
Last week I looked through my blogs of previous years for some inspiration, a starting point to get me going. I used to fear the blank screen as a writer until it dawned on me just a year ago that it was never me writing these articles. It was always G-d. I was just the pen He used. I’d been restless all morning waiting for Him to pick me up again and put me to use. I stared and stared at the blank page further exasperated by numerous interruptions that had me jumping from my seat more times than any writer would care to. No inspiration came, not from above nor from my previous articles. Had G-d put down His ball point or had I just dropped the ball?
Although I’ve been writing Torah blogs for over 25 years, it turns out that every year since I started posting my blogs to the Internet in 2012, I’ve skipped writing about last week’s Torah portions. It’s ironic for me personally as this week’s Torah reading is the one which corresponds with my Hebrew birthday. It is called, Emor, which means “SAY.” In fact, within the very first sentence the word say is written three times. How auspicious for one who would become a writer and would have so very much to say. And yet somehow words have failed me repetitively at this same point. Nonetheless, the sages teach that the spaces between the words and letters of the Torah are just as important as the letters and words themselves, just as is the silence between notes to give any song meaning and form. In a world of unceasing chaotic noise, perhaps talent and wisdom is to know when to stay silent. In the silence, in the spacing, our identity takes shape and defines itself. We have only to look at the effects of social distancing and its resulting isolation. When we pull away from the narrative of our lives, ones we are often unwittingly interlocked with, only then can we really get a clearer picture of who we are. And when we reassert our voices into life anew, we can better decide where we will position ourselves. Will I be like the letter ayin that heads the word oneg which means happiness/joy or like the ayin that inserts itself at the end of the word ra, which means bad or evil? The sages teach that every letter came before G-d ‘ere He created the world wanting to be the one that starts His Torah. Where do you want to fit in? When the silence breaks, know that sequence has consequence. Where will you place yourself vis-a-vis your relationship with G-d and others. It is not surprising that the word humility in Hebrew, anava, starts with the letter ayin because the ayin has no sound of its own. Its sound depends completely on the vowel attached to it: ah, eh, oo, etc. Moses was known to be the most humble person that ever lived, in a manner, a man of silence. No sound of his own, i.e., no ego. He tells G-d: “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday….” (Shemot 4:10) It was that humility that made him worthy of being G-d’s messenger and teacher to humanity. A man of no words? Today we call the Torah the Five Books of Moses. That’s a lot of words.
I’ve truly come to value the sound of silence. My father always taught us not to talk needlessly. So many people talk simply to talk, to be heard, to be braggarts, to be important. Their words make them feel like a somebody, from academic snobbery, to scriptural swank, to gossip, as long as they are talking. As long as we hear our voices in the air, we feel important, alive. And the age old question comes to mind, what if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it really make a sound? The answer comes to us in last week’s Torah reading, whose voice came to me only later in the week. G-d commands the Israelites, “"You shall not curse the deaf” (Leviticus 19:14).
Now not tripping the blind we can understand, but why not curse the deaf? Really no harm done, right? Wrong. The physical ear, whether it works or not, is a physical manifestation of the soul’s ear--and speech originates from the “soul of speech.” No words are lost in the universe and they all make their mark. And a word out of place can disrupt the algorithm of the universe. Sefer HaChinuch explains that a curse can have its effect even when it’s not heard (via Rabbi Munk). The Rambam says that a curse actually affects the one cursing. Anger, which propels curses, is tantamount to idol worship as it is a tacit reaction that implies G-d was not behind whatever it is that angered the person.
Friends, our words comprise our reality and also compromise it. As such, we have to learn not to be afraid of the silence when we have nothing godly to say. Interesting, to give honor and respect to those who died we will often take a moment of silence in their memory. Let’s do the same for life and the living. Stay quiet to give honor and legitimacy to the words we do say. In some fields such as mine, we often get paid by the word. But when you serve G-d you are rewarded for appropriate silence. Last week’s commandments prohibit us from cursing the deaf, and our parents, from lying to one another, to gossiping. This week’s Torah portion, ends with someone blaspheming G-d. That’s the problem with the tongue, when it gets started it doesn’t know when to stop. It will start thinking that cursing or gossiping about the deaf or those not within range is harmless and it will end up like the snake taking on G-d Himself. Talk is cheap, silence is golden. Choose your worth.