Galilee Diary: The sound of silence

January 25, 2011Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

...There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire - a still small voice...
-I Kings 19:11-13

In a noisy world, Israel is a pretty noisy place.  The automobile horn is a favored instrument of self-expression.  The style of political (and every-day) discourse is to assume that if you can shout down or drown out your opponent's voice, then you have proven the rightness of your own position. This trickles down from the Knesset with its raucous "debates" to the classroom.  I was reminded of this cultural characteristic the other day, when I led a day-long study tour for a group of forty 10th graders from an elite high school.  I know that adolescents everywhere can find it difficult to listen to anyone but themselves, but here I think that that natural tendency is exacerbated by a cultural environment that eschews the nuance that might be fostered by listening to the other, and thrives on the strident confrontation between extreme views.

In the 1920s, the German Jewish educator Siegfried Lehman and his colleagues, who founded the Ben Shemen youth village, had an interesting vision - their institution would give a central role to "education for silence."  Students would learn to value silence, and to listen - to nature, to music, to others.  Had they been successful, Israel would sound like quite a different place today!

Every year I try to make at least one pilgrimage to the desert.  I have written about these winter excursions several times over the years. This past week the opportunity was provided by a two-day retreat of the Israel Rabbinic Program at HUC - the students planned it and invited the faculty to join them for two days at a youth hostel perched on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, about 45 minutes from Jerusalem (Jerusalem sits literally on the edge of the wilderness; the view from the eastern neighborhoods is a classic desert landscape).   There was worship and study and sharing, a hike and a campfire.  It was a very mellow,successful conclusion to the semester.  There was also a certain amount of free time.  On evening and sunrise walks around the perimeter of the hostel grounds, I had the chance to enjoy one characteristic of the desert that both attracts and repels: its total silence.  Early in the morning - no traffic, no voices, no media, no leaves to rustle in the wind.  A lone bird twittering on a fence post - and its echo returning across the wadi.  The desert impresses with its vastness, its power, its timelessness, its esthetic beauty, its cruelty.  But for me, this time at least, it was the silence that affected me most.  Like in the Dr.Seuss movie in which the hero invents a substance that sucks all the sound out of the air, the desert is like a "sound sink," somehow absorbing into its emptiness the noise that is so much a part of our daily existence, leaving us alone with our thoughts.  Perhaps that explains why Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Mohammed (among others)had significant spiritual experiences in the desert.  Perhaps it's the silence of the desert that allows us to discern the sound of the "still small voice," the voice that is so easily drowned out by the noise that fills our lives in the civilized environment.  And perhaps part of Jerusalem's special spiritual status stems from its location on the edge of the desert: it may be a noisy city, like any other or even more so,with its cacophony of strident voices.  But it is walking distance from aplace where there is no noise at all.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary.

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