Too Much Noise still
— Exodus 14:14

In a lovely meditation on the virtues of silence, Mother Teresa said, "We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence...We need silence to touch souls."
Mother Teresa was clearly not Jewish. She valued silence. We seem to be an altogether noisy and clamorous people. Perhaps this stereotype alone gives the impression that we are not as spiritual as we need to be. Contemplative moments elude us if there is too much noise. We cannot hear a whisper or a breath.
One of the great dramas of the Bible features the problem of our noise at its center. We encounter this drama in our Torah cycle reading of the week in Exodus 14. The Israelite nation, recently released from their role as slave laborers in Egypt, find themselves in a place of primal terror. Pharaoh hardened his heart and pursued the very slaves he ostensibly freed. The Israelites saw him and his minions in chariots behind them and the expanse of the Reed Sea in front of them and no solution anywhere, as we read directly in the verses:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" Moses answered the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still." [Exodus 14:10-14]
In fear, the Israelites yelled and yelled. They screamed at God and at Moses with an almost indiscriminate urgency. Moses told them that the solution would not rest in their noise but in their stillness. God would fight on their behalf, as God had done in all of the previous chapters of the exodus story. Their job: be still.
It is not hard to hear in the complaints their ingratitude and short-sightedness, a problem that would trail them throughout the wilderness. But when we judge them, we do so at a comfortable remove.  I thought of our ancient sisters and brothers as I read Rabbi Daniel Feldman's comprehensive new book on speech in Jewish law: False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture. Lashon HaRa, negative speech about others, is a mighty transgression in Jewish law. Nevertheless, permission is granted in limited situations, by the Talmud, to speak badly against a cantankerous people; in Hebrew this is rendered as "baalei mahaloket," people who love to argue or, as R. Feldman terms them, troublemakers. But R. Feldman warns that this is not a blanket dispensation. "This negative speech is only allowed for the purposes of quieting the dispute." And if one criticizes an entire group, he or she must employ certain guidelines so that the criticism does not become an ad hominim attack. According to R. Feldman, "These conditions include [that] the speaker must know the information personally, and not be relying on another; the intent must be pure; there must be no other feasible method of bringing peace; and all of the above must be carefully evaluated."
Labeling an entire people is a dangerous business. It's the spiritual equivalent of racial profiling and it can generate much misunderstanding and limit the capacity for growth and change. One must be careful in engaging this leniency to describe and condemn the behavior instead of dismissing the group and have in mind that the end goal of such labeling is to identify a behavior rather than actively disparage it.
Moses called us a stiff-necked people, as did God. This was not to trap us in this behavior but to create the conditions for self-awareness and change. Be still, Moses cautioned here, so that the miracle that was about to take place - the splitting of the sea - would be the miracle it was. Too much noise prevents us from hearing and can also prevent us from seeing that which is wonder-full and awe-inspiring. And yet, although Moses told the people to be still, God got the last word. "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Israelites and go'" [14:15].
 Be quiet. Yes. Jump. Yes.

Let Silence Speak

“When I speak, I have reason to regret. But when I am silent, I have nothing to regret. Before I speak, I am master over my words; once the words leave my mouth, they rule over me.
— Rabbi Judah the Pious

I don't know about you, but I am getting a little tired of all the words spilled over the war in Gaza: the talking heads, the inane Facebook posts, the political rhetoric, the empty words, the angry words, the uncharitable words. So few of these words add clarity. They don't even add confusion. They just add to the mountain of talk that dissipates quickly when you see one profound visual image of anguish on either side.

I thought of this frustration when I encountered the following passage in the daily cycle of Talmud study this week: "What is the meaning of this that is written: 'For You, silence is praise [Psalms 65:2]? The best remedy of all is silence. When Rabbi Dimi came [from Israel to Babylonia], he said: In the West [Israel], they say, 'If a word is worth one sela, silence is worth two'" [BT Megilla18a]. I know what you're thinking: how much is a sela worth? Is it worth it to be quiet? Well in the days of the Talmud we used the Roman monetary system, and a sela was called a Tyrian Tetradrachm. 1,500 selas make up one talent, and 3,000 selas make the equivalent of a Biblical shekel, according to my research. What this means is that your silence is not worth very much, but it is worth twice your words!

One later Talmud commentator interprets this to mean that coming up with an appropriate comment is worth one sela, but refraining from making an inappropriate comment is worth twice as much. Wit is always trumped by restraint. This makes sense. While we may regret not sharing a poignant observation or clever retort, that missed opportunity will always be easier to live with than the insult, hurt or backhanded compliment that we do say. Rabbi Judah the Pious [R. Yehuda Ha-Hasid], a medieval scholar, says above that you cannot regret the words you do not say and that just the act of letting words leave your mouth allows them to master you rather than the other way around. Mastering silence - or zipping the lip - requires a level of personal discipline that speaking does not.

Because we also pay a psychic price for words we regret, we can understand how silence also protects us, not only others. And the proverb from Ethics of the Fathers: "I have found nothing better for my body than silence" [1:17] confirms this. Silence is not only a wise choice in regard to others but a way that we protect, nourish and defend ourselves physically because the price of poor judgment in words can create stress: ulcers and muscle aches, headaches and heartaches.

In Ecclesiastes we read the famous line "a time to speak and a time to be silent" [3:7], but how do we know what time is the right time for speech and the right time for silence? Here are five questions that may help you decide:

  • Will this hurt someone?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Does it make a genuine contribution to the discussion at hand?
  • How will I feel if the person I am speaking about hears this?

We are now in the nine day period leading up to Tisha B'av. We read the book of Lamentations. It starts not with a word but with a sigh. It is a time when people are often more cautious about physical danger. It is a good time to be more cautious about spiritual and emotional danger by watching out for gossip and lies, hurtful speech and criticism. Let your silence protect you as the better part of wisdom. Silence creates the sacred space to hear better. If the world remains unlittered by our words, there is more room for the words of others. Let silence speak.

Shabbat Shalom