Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 19 July 2021
This week we begin reading from the book of Deuteronomy – in Hebrew, Devarim – ‘words’.
Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael be’ever haYarden
These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the banks of the River Jordan…
Thus begins the final book of our Torah – which consists of three big speeches Moses addresses to the Israelites, in the knowledge that he will not be permitted to join them on the other side of the river, wanting to remind them of where they have come from, where they are going, and how they should behave once they arrive at their destination.
In a sermon back in October, I reflected on the importance of words, of talking, of being able to speak to each other and the importance that has to our mental health – not to keep our feelings bottled up inside, but to use words and language as a way of expressing our innermost anxieties to our friends and family and get help when we need it. After all, for Cain and Abel, an inability to communicate with words leads to the tragic consequence of the alternative, which is communication through fatal violence.
And this remains true. But today, in the face of the surfeit of words in the book of Deuteronomy, I want instead to talk about the power and the value of silence.
‘Silence is golden’ – silence is also in some ways, divine.
In Midrash Tanchuma, R. Abba bar Acha tells us:
The student sits before their master. When they leave, the student says to the master, “How have I tired you!” However, [when] Israel learned from the Holy Blessed One, and they departed, it was God that said to them, “How much have I tired you!”
In other words, when a student departs from their teacher, they thank their teacher for their words; they suggest, perhaps flatteringly, that the teacher has so much more to say, that they are tired now, but perhaps later there will be more to teach. In the case of God and the Israelites, however, it is God that says ‘I have tired you!’ Of course, on a simple level this is the rabbis trying to assert their theology – that God is incapable of being tired, so when the Israelites depart, it must be because they have run out of steam. Again, maybe there was more to say, but the capacity to hear the words was so diminished that the speaker thought it pertinent to pause for the moment.
But there is a perhaps more profound, more spiritually relevant reason:
The prooftext that R. Abba bar Acha cites in support of his statement is drawn from this week’s portion: “The Eternal our God spoke to us in Horev saying, [You have stayed long enough on this mountain]” (Deuteronomy 1:6). And we have heard the same in what Rabbi Hannah read this morning: ‘Then the Eternal said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough.’ Enough talking, now is the time to act.
How many meetings have we all been in, where the same points keep being made over and over, and we need a wise person to say (like God), enough already, we know what needs to be done, let’s do it!
In our Chavruta Project this week, we have been studying the following teaching from Pirkei Avot:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says, ‘Do not appease your fellow when they are angry; and do not comfort them when their dead lie before them; do not question them when they make a vow; and do not try to see them in their time of disgrace.’ (Pirkei Avot 4:23)
All of these suggestions advise at least a strategic silence, a moment of silence before jumping in. Rabbi Shimon seems to be indicating that the wordy response is not always the wisest; that sometimes it is better to remain silent – to hold back, to allow others to be angry, to grieve, to be embarrassed, without us imposing our narrative or our needs on the situation.
As Qohelet tells us, there is a time for silence as well as a time for speaking (3:7).
Silence can be awkward. Silence can be hard. Speaking as someone who finds it very hard to sleep in silence, and usually has to have the radio on to fall asleep, I know how the sound of the human voice can be soothing and reassuring. Particularly in the time of this pandemic, when our lives have been robbed of the stimulus from other people that we had previously enjoyed – sometimes the silence and the absence can become overwhelming.
In our funeral prayer book, our prayers ask God to comfort us when, like Aaron at the death of his sons, we are rendered silent through grief. Regaining words is a way of recovering from the trauma of losing someone we love. Talking about them, letting them live on in the words we say about them, is healing and perhaps even spiritually uplifting. But that is not always possible. Sometimes there is still a more permanent power in silence.
Elie Wiesel protested against silence in the face of injustice: ‘I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’ And yet, again, we are faced with the reality that not all words are going to be useful – that words have to be directed and not simply for their own sake. Activists, those who want to fight injustice can spend far too much time (as Hamlet says) with ‘words, words, words’, and little action.
Tonight begins the fast of Tisha b’Av – yet another occasion for us to give voice to words to express our pain, our anxiety, perhaps even our anger with God and the world. Rabbi John Rayner writes of the need for Tisha b’Av because it allows us to condense our Jewish national grieving into one day – to avoid talking about it constantly, all the time, in a way that would threaten to overtake our lives. Even the afternoon of Tisha b’Av having sat in mourning, refraining from those things we would normally do, we begin to pick ourselves up and prepare to return to the world – as though, as in our portion this morning, we say to ourselves, you have been here talking for too long – now is the time to stop talking, at least temporarily, and to act.
Rabbi Alan Lew draws our attention to Tisha b’Av as preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – a time of many, many words. As we enter the book of ‘words’ and the time of so many words, let us remember their power, but also let us be reminded of the equally potent power of silence.