In Sh’mot Rabbah, we read:
Rabbi Abahu said, “When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird cried out, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not move, the seraphim did not say “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the sea did not stir, the creatures did not speak. The whole world fell into a total silence.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 29:9)
In a world filled with every color, taste, and sound under the heavens, if there is one powerful component of life that is absent, it is silence. We have erased it from every area. We have put speakers in subway cars and buses; music plays in grocery stores and woos shoppers off the sidewalks. Blaring TVs are in our cabs and cars. And rare is the person who doesn’t plug in music or podcasts amidst his or her daily journeys through cities of sound. Auditory cacophony and visual din are so needed for many of us that we use white noise to sleep, and Twitter and email feeds to wake up.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity's problems stem from a person's inability to sit quietly in a room alone" (Pensees, 139). According to a recent meta-study published in Science Magazine, we are so uncomfortable with undistracted silence that the majority of participants in the study would rather receive electric shocks than sit for even a few minutes in silence (“Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” Science, July 4, 2014).
Take away our sensory distractions, and discomfort descends. For in silence we are forced to hear the things we so often drown out. The cries of the soul. The existential solitude. The questions of person, place, and purpose.
Silence points not only to what comes at us, but also to what comes out of us. The Vilna Gaon used to go for days fasting, not on food, but on words. According to his ethical letter, Iggeret HaGra, a person should afflict himself the entirety of his remaining days, not by fasting of food, but rather, by the fasting of one’s own mouth (Iggeret HaGra 8). And, the Chasidic masters believed the highest form of spiritual practice was not the uttering of prayers or the sound of study, but rather hitbodedut, “embracing silence” (also known as “self-seclusion” or “self-isolation”). A spiritual silence. A silence of noticing. A silence of connecting.
This Shabbat we begin the ever-popular Book of Leviticus. We are often distracted by its details of dashed blood and disease, priestly purity, and sacred slaughter. The book opens with the word Vayikra – “And [God] called,” – a word that gives us the Hebrew names for the first portion and for the book as a whole. After near-constant talking and speaking from God, we encounter what feels oddly out of place: God calls to Moses. For the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, this single word summarizes the substance of all that was revealed to the Israelites on Sinai – God called to humanity; the Torah and all the subsequent writings are simply our response (See letter to Martin Buber, June 5, 1925 in The Letters of Martin Buber).
There is also an orthographic oddity in this single word, vayikra. Written in the Torah, the final letter is always scribed in miniature form: a tiny, 12 point font aleph next to the 24 point font of the rest of the word. In the Zohar, this points to the mystics’ teaching that the silence of the aleph inspires God to see it as the only conduit for unity and connection (Zohar 1:3b). Later thinkers imagined that of all the words and letters in the Torah, the only thing God uttered was the first letter of the Ten Commandments – the letter aleph. The letter of silence. The space of God’s Presence (see Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition).
If you have ever sat with someone in silence, you know there are different kinds of silence: silence of sadness, of joy, of uncertainty, of love. In silence we are given the chance to feel presence beyond words. And for most of us, the most profound and powerful moments of our lives are never about words, but about feelings: the sense of belonging, the yearning for wholeness, the heart-shattering feeling of loss.
And, out of that silence, God may speak. Our early Sages imagine that since the dawn of time God has been calling out to every person at every moment: Abraham was simply the first person to be silent enough to notice. (In B’reishit Rabbah 39:1 Rabbi Yitzhak imagines this as the call of wonder or horror at either the majesty or the monstrosity of the world.) God has been calling out of a bush aflame. Moses was simply the first person silent enough to notice. (In the Chasidic work, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, this encounter at the bush becomes an example of the divine encounter possible at any moment and place.) In another example, God was whispering in the quiet: Elijah was the first to notice it on the mountaintop, as we read about the famous “still, small voice” or soft whisper of silence (I Kings 19:12).
Our tradition, which imagines the universe created with words, and encourages us to fill our homes and sanctuaries with speaking and song, believes that God calls out of the aleph – the small spaces of silence.
We live in a world in which it is so hard to stumble upon silence. And when we do, we would often prefer receiving an electric shock to staying within it. And yet, Vayikra, God calls out to us, in each moment of each day. The prophet Zephaniah, envisioning what will happen on the day we enter the Messianic era, offers our ancestors these words of God: “On that day... I will make silence in love” (Zephaniah 3:17, translation by Rabbi Ben Spratt).
For even but a moment, may we leave behind the buzz and hum, the storms and the fires, the words and the tweets, and may we fall into the small spaces of the aleph.
And there, we may just hear God’s voice.
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries, and in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.