Torah Reading for Week of May 15-21, 2011
“The Sounds of Silence”
By Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud
Several decades ago a Carnegie Hall piano recital premiered a strange composition by John Cage. The pianist raised his hands over the keyboard, sat immobile for a full three minutes, then lowered his hands and rose to thunderous applause.
Composer Cage explained the matter to puzzled reporters, “Music is composed of two elements, notes and rests. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have written music made entirely of notes, so I composed one piece entirely of rests.”
To be sure, most of us would probably not care to sit through an entire concert of silent musical composition, but is it not true that silences can be every bit as effective as sounds?
This concept is exemplified in our Torah portion of Behukotai. Behukotai contains horrific descriptions of human tragedy, and presents us with a terrifying litany of curses and maledictions, all of which are read publicly from the Torah scroll.
But how are they read? Not loudly, distinctly or slowly, but rather in a hurried, barely audible whisper…as if to say: the ultimate horrors in life are indescribable in words, only silences can adequately portray them.
Indeed, there is a remarkable eloquence to silence.
Both in the context of Talmudic law and Anglo-Saxon law, “Silence implies consent.” (Shtikah k’hodaya dami)
The eloquence of silence often greets the peak joyful experiences in our lives…the magic of the chuppah moment, the miracle of child birth, the majestic panorama of snow-capped mountain ranges. Can one possibly find proper words with which to capture these encounters?
Nevertheless, many of us experience a sense of discomfiture with silence, do we not? We desperately need to wallow in verbiage.
The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) records that a prayer leader once elaborated lengthily on the first passage of the Amidah. He described G-d as “The great, mighty, awe-inspiring, majestic, powerful, terrifying, strong, fearless, sure and honored…” Rabbi Hanina later inquired of him, “Do you think that you have exhausted G-d’s praises with your dozen adjectives? It is as if a king owned a million gold coins and you praised him for owning one hundred. Your very praise in an insult! The only reason that we call G-d ‘great, mighty and awe-inspiring’ is because Moses used these adjectives in the Torah. Were it not for his precedent, we would say nothing at all”.
The response of silence to the presence of G-d is reflected in the old Buddhist proverb, “Those who know, do not speak, and those who speak, do not know”. It is also manifested in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of Jewish prayer: “Our liturgy is the highest form of silence”.
There is good evidence that we Americans are not very comfortable with silence. Perhaps that is the reason that the radio incessantly plays in our cars and the television plays in our homes day and night whether or not we are watching.
Too bad! In avoiding silence we deprive ourselves both of deeper relationships with one another as well as a deeper relationship with G-d. The sounds of silence can be both eloquent and sacred sounds to experience.
Note from Rabbi Schochet
I just finished reading Cecelia Herzfeld-Stern’s sensitive and moving Torah commentary on Parshat Emor as regards “silence in response to the Holocaust”. It brought back memories. Upon returning from my first trip to Lithuania in 1994, I shared many reflections on the journey with my congregation. However, I found myself totally at a loss for words when attempting to describe the Ninth Fort, the extermination site for the Kovno ghetto. Words were not only inadequate, they seemed trivializing and even blasphemous in the face of indescribable horror.