Delivered at Congregation Shaare Emeth, Shabbat Vayikra, 3/19/2019
As you may know, I was away on a three-month sabbatical for much of the winter. During that time, I had the opportunity to refresh, renew, study, and pray. I spent a little time with my mom in California, and while I was there I attended my third Jewish spirituality retreat for a week with other clergy, where much of our time was spent in silence. When I mention that I am a part of a series of silent retreats, many people are curious about how that works and sometimes quickly respond, “Oh, I could never do that.”
Tonight, I will not bore you with ridiculous detail of my being in the pouring cold rain in Southern California or the polar vortex of Chicago or other weather phenomena. And I will not try to convince you that you should attend a silent retreat. What I will do, is share my experience with you, and some of the things I took away from this last retreat and how those takeaways have and have influenced me on my return – and, maybe something for you to put in your own practice as well. Don’t worry, I’m not showing any slides.
A recurring theme in my own life is how to handle all the NOISE. Noise has a number of different negative connotations, but in this case, I’ll be talking about noise in its broader sense, as a vibration of something: sound, light, touch, even silent emotional and maybe even spiritual vibration. Think of tossing a stone into a calm pond, the water ripples around the entry-point of the stone in a cyclical pattern – the vibrations of the stone’s impact can be seen in those ripples, long after the stone has reached the bottom of the pond. It’s the ripples – seen and unseen, heard and unheard but nevertheless FELT that I have been studying and reflecting on the last several weeks.
There’s a meme, a one-panel comic on Facebook, maybe you’ve seen it, that says, “My mind is like my internet browser, 17 tabs are open, 4 of them are frozen, and I don’t know where the music is coming from.”
The external noise, the stuff that comes at us all the time – the TV, the radio in the car, podcasts, audiobooks, the headphones and the earbuds, the advertisements and infomercials, they are everywhere. The more subtle noise is present too, the hum of the air blowing from the vents, the buzz of lights and computer fans. And the messages, the email, the texts, the Facebook likes, the dinging and buzzing signaling the arrival of even more informational noise.
Ironically, the dings and buzzes don’t distinguish between the news of mass shootings or a government indictment and the stars of the next season of So You Think You Can Dance. It’s as if we are deaf and blind to the type of noise, as long as its there. And if it’s not there, we check our phones to make sure nothing’s wrong – did I miss a text? Why are we so afraid of silence?
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When there isn’t external noise distracting me from my thoughts, the silence gives the internal noises a chance to be more discernable. Usually, for me, it’s the noise of my mind constantly churning sparks of incomplete thoughts, foggy moments remembered, items left undone and any myriad of feelings of inadequacy, anticipation, excitement or a combination of any or all. The emotional noise alone can be deafening. On a retreat where days are spent exploring silence from the evening through the afternoon of each day, my experience is that the emotional noise gets loudest when we’re asked to be silent, and over the next roughly 24 hours, almost plays itself out – getting quieter and quieter, going from loud and frequent, to soft and intermittent. The vibrations slow, the ripples get farther apart and a sense of inner-space begins to open. A place where silence is welcomed rather than shunned, a place where the expectation of messages isn’t fulfilled by a text or email, but rather filled with quiet contentedness.
External noise and vibration have very different meanings to some. You may know Jennifer Stanfield and her family, proud Shaare Emeth members. Jennifer, who was born with very low hearing, received bilateral cochlear implants over the last couple of years. She has chronicled her newfound sense of hearing – speaking here at Shaare Emeth last Yom Kippur afternoon and sharing many of her day to day discoveries on Facebook. Jennifer elates in almost all of her posts about remarkable things that she can do now, like hear her birds chirping and water running and how she can now hear her mom when they’re in the car together with the back windows down without having to lip read. Her world of hearing is expanding every day – and it is a scientific breakthrough and miraculous feat of bestowing hearing to the deaf, and Jennifer’s openness about how amazing it is so beautifully refreshing. It’s so easy for us who hear that there is good noise out there to be heard.
I don’t want to belabor this idea of bad noise for the those, like Jennifer, who are new to the hearing world, but it reminds me of the interview with Fred Rogers in last year’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about his life and work. In it, that Rogers says he turned on the television, a new invention at the time, and all he saw that was aimed at children were slapstick scenes of pies being thrown in people’s faces and other silliness that had nothing to do with what he thought children needed – a safe and comforting, yet challenging environment that was built on love. And boy was he right. It begs the question for me, is this the type of sound that Jennifer should hear for the first time? Or is it something else – something less – um – noisy?
The internal noise – the stuff that clogs our brains: todo lists, schedules, notes, and maybe the more important too, people’s birthdays, remembering a friend who’s going to have surgery, negotiating with yourself about when, if and how to get from here through the day without a break, and so on. These vibrations are important – they impact our mood and our sense of well-being from the inside-out. Mixed with the noisy external world – it can become a loud and dissonant world pretty fast.
It would be a mistake to talk about noise without talking about the role that music plays. Maybe you know someone who always has music playing in the background when they’re working or studying. Maybe you have season tickets to the St. Louis Symphony or have the latest Katy Perry single on your playlist. Maybe music for you is an opening into a world where the beautiful melodies help to temper and quiet the less helpful noise of other or even from bubbling up from within one of those browser windows in your mind. Maybe music is a perfect distraction from those places, maybe it complements them, and helps make calm where it lacks, maybe it has the power to change them into more tolerable bits of feelings that would otherwise be too strong to confront. Music can be transformational so many ways – and yes, it’s all because of the vibrations of the strings, reeds, brass, voices, electronic or natural, noise meant to send a message that evokes some type of emotion on the part of the listener. The famous French composer Claude Debussy is credited with saying that “music is the silence between the notes.” Although there is some debate about who actually said it – whoever did is absolutely right. If all the sounds in a beautiful song were played at once it would be utter cacophony. Instead, with space in between – each note, each chord, each voice has a chance to vibrate at its full potential.
Rests in music can be similar to rests in our lives – taking time to let the last experience, the last chord reverberate before continuing, just as an orchestra pauses at the end of a movement to let sound die in the hall before taking their bows away from the strings. Those reverberations of the music even after it stops contain vibrational information that is equally, perhaps even more important, than the music itself.
In thinking about quiet and silence, we also should consider the spoken word. From advertisements to TED talks and idle chatter to sermons – words are important. In this week’s Torah portion, the beginning of the book of Leviticus, the first word of the book – Vayikra – is spelled with an interesting peculiarity. Take out the Plaut Torah commentary that’s near you, it’s the thicker blue book, and turn to page 660. It is said that there are no mistakes in the Torah – no missing words and no added words – it is absolutely perfect and complete just the way it is. You will notice at the top of page 660 a large aleph indicating the beginning of the first chapter and next to it the word Vayikra. You don’t have to read Hebrew to notice that the last letter (reading right to left) of the first word on that page looks different, the aleph is dramatically smaller than the rest of the print. And it’s that way in the Torah, too. There is a teaching that points out that the aleph makes the difference between the verb vayikar, “happened upon,” as in “God happened upon Moses,” and the verb vayikra, “God called Moses.” The Midrash says that Moses argues for vayikar while God insists on vayikra. The compromise between the two was the small aleph as a nod to Moses’ humility and God’s intention to call Moses by name. Other thinkers who wanted to continue to play with this idea say that the only word God truly ever uttered was the first letter of the Ten Commandments – the letter aleph – the letter that doesn’t make a sound. In effect saying, the way God might connect with us and the way might come to understand God’s presence is through silence.
Rabbi Abahu is quoted in Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah, and you may recognize it from our High Holiday machzor: “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.” (29:9)
Our silent prayer that we shared before we took out the Torah is a good example of how silence can work even in a group. There is time to let the words and music of the prayers of our service reverberate even after the sound is inaudible and the silence allows us to experience a space that is welcoming to holiness. Now, I’ll be honest, I usually find myself thinking about something mundane during our silent prayer, what I’ll have for dinner, what’s happening next in the service or why does my toe hurt – you know – all that noise. Recently, especially since my retreat and sabbatical, I have been able to more appreciate these quieter moments – noticing and acknowledging my tendency to wander into noisy topics – while quieting them and allowing the quiet space – outside and inside – to, in a way, speak to me.
The small aleph in Vayikra signals to me that silence is okay and that sometimes it is better to stay quiet than to speak. It is sometimes better to appreciate that musical rest a little longer. It is sometimes better to mute the notifications than to jump to them.
There are still reverberations in silence – although they are not always understood or even felt. Some may come from our own bodies, as our chest rises and falls with the breath. Some may come from memory, perhaps of a loved one, some may come from a place of desire or yearning that is yet or maybe never understood.
It is my hope that you too can find a moment, perhaps a few moments in your day for some good silence, it’s a feat because noise is so pervasive in our society. We are given Shabbat each week for exactly this purpose, not to demand quiet from everyone around you, but to find a place, a moment for your own mind to begin to loosen and empty. Our internal noise can sometimes be easier to mute than the external when we exercise our ability to make space within ourselves.
It is wonderful to be back with you and wonderful to share in these moments of noise, quiet and everything in between.