The Torah of Silence

R' Yair Hillel Goelman

The Torah of Silence

D'var Torah, Rosh HaShanah Day 1

R' Yair Hillel Goelman, Or Shalom

1 Tishrei, 5761

September 30, 2000

A few minutes ago when we held the Torah aloft we all saw the letters and words in black ink swimming in a sea of white parchment. Usually we comment on the letters and words in the Torah, but today I want to focus with you on the white spaces between the letters. Today we focus on the silences between and underneath the written and spoken narrative of the Torah.

A few years ago when our teacher, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they began by explaining what it was they wanted to learn from the other. The Dalai Lama said that he wanted to learn how to keep a religion alive in exile for over 2,000 years. This, he said, was an important lesson that he wanted to pass along to his people.

Reb Zalman said that what he wanted to learn from the Dalai Lama and what he wanted to pass along to Jews, was how to sit in silence. In our own community we are blessed with people who teach and model silent practice. People like Yehuda Angel who conducts frequent weekday and shabbat silent meditation gatherings through his yeshiva program; and Evelyn Neaman who offers Torah and Yoga classes throughout the year; and Alan Morinis's work on the contemplative aspects of musar, self reflection and improvement; and Mel Kaushansky's deep and continuing work in the realm of silent devotion.

Thanks to teachers like these we are starting to learn more about silence in the Jewish tradition.

There are many qualities of silence in our tradition. For example:

  • We read of stunned silence in the book of Leviticus when Aaron's 2 sons, Nadav and Avihu, were killed. The Torah tells us: va'yidom Aharon. He was silent. There were no words he could utter in that moment.
  • In the Talmud we read of silence as wisdom when the rabbis describe silence as a "fence that protects the Torah".
  • Reb Zalman teaches about a kind of watchful or attentive silence. When someone asks Reb Zalman to speak up more loudly his response is, "I can't speak any louder - you'll have to listen louder."
  • And then there as kind of loud, bold, explicit silence. I'm thinking of my father, Dr. Elazar Goelman, Z"L. When he strongly disagreed with someone he would simply say, "Notice how I'm not saying anything."

In today's Torah reading and in the chapters leading up to it we also see a number of different and very specific qualities and textures of silence. For example:

  • We read about a joyful silence in Sarah's silent, inward laugh when she hears God's messengers promise that she will conceive and bear a child in her old age. She laughs silently; the men in the tent do not hear her but God does.
  • In Chapter 20 we can infer a kind of cowardly or humiliated silence on the part of Avraham when he never explains or asks forgiveness from Sarah when he asked her to pretend to be his sister instead of his wife. This resulted in allowing her to be taken by Avimelech, almost forcing his wife to commit adultery.
  • And today we hear a great deal of silence pain and betrayal. After Hagar and Yishmael have been banished to the desert and the miraculous intervention by God to save their lives, neither of these characters are heard to speak again in the Torah. Last year at Rosh HaShana service Rabbi Mivasair very dramatically gave two Palestinian women the opportunity to try to give voice to Hagar's silence.
  • Sarah experiences and expresses what a number of current Jewish feminist theologians interpret as a silence of regret and shame. After telling Avraham that Hagar and Ishmael must be banished, Sarah is forever silent in the Torah.
  • In tomorrow's Torah reading when we read of Avraham taking Yitzchak to be slaughtered, Avraham says nothing to Sarah and Sarah watches in horrified silence as her one and only son is led to the slaughter. Midrash tells us that seeing her son go off to a certain death the way in whch she sent Yishmael off to his certain death, Sarah dies of shock and horror.
  • A different kind of silence appears in the haftora: We are told of a prayerful silence in today's in that when Hanna prayed, "el liba" to her heart. Her lips moved but no sound escaped. God could hear her but Elie the High Priest could not.

There is a veritable cacophony of silence that envelopes and permeates today's narrative. In effect, today's reading gives us a story of the destruction of discourse within a family caused by jealousy and anger and resulting in harsh, even brutal silence. The text echoes hauntingly until this day and the silence permeates the stories as well. The silence of the men seems to me to be a very loud silence because the torah tells us the men were silent. The silence of the women seems to be a quieter, more intuitive silence that God can hear, but men cannot.

But what do we make of an even louder and more stunning silence: the silence of the children in today's and tomorrow's stories. Where is the children's voice and where is the children's silence?

  • One moment we can hear the laughter of Yitzhak and Yishmael playing together - "mitzachek". The boys are separated and the next thing we hear from Yishmael - his name means "God will hear" - is his cry of pain in the desert and absolute silence from Yitzchak that his playmate has been sent out to certain death. After Yishamel calls out in the desert, his voice is not heard again in the Torah. We know that Yitzchak and Yishmael meet years later to bury their father Avraham. Do they talk? The Torah is silent on this point.
  • And what of Yitzchak's voice and Yitzchak's silence? Tomorrow we read of Avraham taking his only remaining son to be slaughtered in order to pass God's test. Isaac chats away all the way to the top of the mountain. The Torah tells us "the two of them walked together." Then his father ties him to the altar and comes within a nano-second of killing Isaac. God intervenes, Isaac is saved but after that, the Torah tells us that they that Avraham walked down alone. They never speak again in the Torah, father to son.

As in the Torah, it seems that today both the voices of the adult world and the silences of the adult world effectively drown out both the voices and the silences of children. Two fundamental rights that children have come from the names of the children we read about today.

Yishmael: children have the right to be heard. Yitzchak: children have the right to laugh.

Like Yishmael millions of children today suffer from homelessness, poverty, poor health, and imminent starvation. Like Yitzchak, millions of children today are led to the mountain top and are tied down, ready to be sacrificed upon the adult world's altars of war, economic power and ecological destruction. Can we hear these voices of Yishmael and Yitzchak today?

If we listen carefully enough

  • We might be able to hear the voices of the 11 million children in the world who die every year from the effects of preventable disease and malnutrition.
  • We might be able to hear the voices of the over 2 million children die each year in developing countries due to diarrhea; and over 90% of those cases are preventable.
  • We might be able to hear the voices of the 19,000 children who die each day because their developing countries are being strangled by homicidal debt repayment schemes of the developed world.
  • We might be able to hear the cries of children as young as 5 or 6 years old who toil in oppressive labour conditions so that we and our children can wear comfortable jogging shoes.

But lets not deceive ourselves into thinking that these echoes of modern-day Yishmaels and Yitzchaks come only from far-away developing countries with funny-sounding names. Right here in Canada, if we listen carefully enough, we would hear the painful silences caused by the great injustices perpetrated against children in this country in this time of economic prosperity and an estimated federal government surplus in the billions of dollars. In 1989 a unanimous, all-party resolution in the House of Commons declared that Canada would eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Well, 2000 has come and gone and what has happened?

  • Nationally, the percentage of poor children has gone up 49%.
  • Whereas in 1989 1 of 7 kids in Canada was poor; now it's 1 in 5.
  • There are over 463,000 MORE kids are in poverty now than in 1989. At a time of unprecedented government surpluses - created largely by massive cutbacks to health, education and welfare services for children and families - it is simply an obscenity that child poverty persists and grows in Canada today.

We are told to expect federal and provincial elections before next Rosh HaShana. One of the questions I think I'll ask at the all-candidates meetings is straight out of the Rosh HaShana liturgy:

Who shall live and who shall die? Will homelessness, poverty, disease, malnutrition and suicide - all preventable causes of death - will all these continue to take the lives of our youngest, poorest and most vulnerable in society?

Hevre, I can't tell you who to vote for. (Well...) The Torah says very clearly, "M'dvar sheker tirchak", stay far, far away from lies and falsehoods, and anyone denying the enormity of child poverty and its consequences in this country is someone to stay far, far away from.

And so, hevre, it is very clear to me that one dominant message coming through the Torah readings this year, "listen to the silence to the ones who have been silenced."

But until now we've spoken mainly about one aspect of the silence we find in the Torah, the silence that kills, obliterates, and diminishes the other. There are obviously, other more positive qualities of silence.

This year, for example, is the "shemita year, the 7th in our seven year cycle. For six years we've been yelling and demanding of the earth to produce more and more. Torah tells us the earth needs to rest and so this year, the shemita year, we try to silence our demands and to listen to the needs of the earth. We are thankful to our friends in the Adam v'Adamah Jewish Enivronmental Group in Or Shalom for continuing to raise our consciousness of these matters.

The rabbis tell us that another form of silence is called "shetika". This is of silence is seen as a form of wisdom that creates a fence around the Torah This is the kind of silence where we hold back from saying something destructive or petty. "Shetika" keeps us from saying stupid things, blurting things out, doing l'shon ha'ra, gossip, rumour and bad mouthing.

You can actually hear this just in the way we say the word. Say it: "shetika". It sounds like you're about to choke. It closes off your throat. It's a silence that holds back the words. Kind of like a gag reflex. Perhaps the silence we hear from our brothers in Iran who have been convicted unjustly, their voices are silenced and this is "shetika".

Then there is another very beautiful word for silence, too. The Bible tells us to listen to the "kol demama daka" : the still small voice. To hear the voice of God we are instructed to listen to the kol demama daka, not to the thunders and lightenings of Sinai. "Demama". Say it: "demama". It sounds like an echo: "Demamamamama..." If "shetika" is a choking sound, "demama" is a caress, a soft warm breeze with a faint but distinct fragrance. "Demamamama..." Its very comforting. Like you're calling for your mother: "De Mama. De Mama."

Perhap it appropriate therefore that today, the first day of Rosh HaShana, falls on Shabbat. This means that we don't blow shofar today. Notice, I said we don't BLOW shofar today, but I didn't say, "we don't LISTEN to the shofar today." And the mitzvah, the bracha we recite just before the blowing of the shofar is exactly that: "l'shmo'ah kol shofar." So we're not excused today from HEARING the shofar, just from BLOWING it.

The Slonimer Rebbe, a 20th century Hasidic master, quotes the verse in the Torah that's calls Rosh HaShana, "Yom ZICHRON teruah": the day on which we REMEMBER the blowing of the Shofar. It is this mitzvah, to remember the blowing of the shofar that we are commanded to do.

But how do we do this? One answer, from an entirely different context, comes form our beloved rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He cites the verse in the Song of Songs that says in Hebrew "Kol dodi dofek", I hear the voice of beloved knocking. But "dofek" in modern Hebrew can mean a heart-beat or pulse, "defika". In this understanding, I am the lover and God is my beloved.

And if I wish to hear the voice of my beloved, I don't need e-mail or sprint or a pager or voice-mail. I simply touch my pulse, and with each beat of my pulse I can feel and hear the rhythmic "I love you" from the One who created me and brought my existence.

In a moment we will rise for our silent shofar blowing. In the moments of the silent shofar. I will call out the names of the notes and will suggest where we focus our listening with each call. Following this first tekiah, I suggest that we draw our attention to the aching silence of the oppressed men, women and children whose cries, perhaps, have become too familiar.


In this next call, shevarim, I suggest that we all draw our attention to the silent aspects of our own beings, our own neshamas, our souls, whom we haven't been able to listen to because we've been too busy surfing the web of our minds. Our shattered selves will be the focus of shevarim.


In the next call, teruah, I suggest we draw our attention to those individuals who are not here with us today because they are not well, and are in need of healing and support, healing of the mind, and a healing of the spirit.


And in this final tekiah gedola, we will let our mind go to the silence that calls each one of us personally in, the one distinct way that God calls to each and everyone of us. After the tekiah gedola, please remain standing as we return the Torah ands then continue with Musaf.

Please join me in calling the tekiah gedola.



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