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Sound and Silence

rabbi lisa goldstein
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah, begins on Saturday night. The Torah itself describes this occasion as being accompanied by dramatic and terrifying noise and spectacle: thunder, long shofar blasts, earthquake, fire and smoke. As I write these words, I am listening to the jackhammers and sirens on the street below, and I wonder: Why did the giving of Torah require so much noise? And if Mt. Sinai were in New York City, would anyone notice if God started proclaiming.

Mt. Sinai, of course, is not in a huge city; it is in the middle of the desert. Some have noted that the Hebrew word for desert, “midbar,” could be understood as “a place of speech” (the prefix “mi” can mean “a place of,” and the most familiar meaning of the root “d.b.r” is “speak”). That may seem completely counterintuitive; a desert is usually a place of profound and almost absolute quiet. Beyond the wind and an occasional bird or ibex passing by, there is not much sound at all.

Perhaps midbar means “a place of speech” precisely because the desert is so quiet; we can finally hear there the Speech that is actually spoken all the time. In fact, there are “midrashim” (rabbinic interpretations) that say that God is always speaking at Sinai, but on the day the Torah was given, on the sixth of Iyar so long ago, the desert was completely silent so that we could really hear.

As the midrashic collection Exodus Rabbah describes so beautifully, “When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels did not fly, the seraphim did not utter ‘holy, holy, holy,’ the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak; the universe was silent and mute. And the Voice came forth: ‘I am YHVH, your God.’” (Exodus Rabbah 29:7)

It makes sense. In our distraction-filled, plugged-in world, it is often only by finding a little quiet that we can hear a deeper truth buried beneath the layers of noise — undoubtedly one of the reasons so many people flock to yoga studios, spa retreats and meditation centers. It can also explain why it is often easier to feel “spiritual” in the quiet of nature than in the commotion of the city. It is in the silence that the bustle of life can settle down and reveal the hidden wisdom that stirs beneath the surface.

So we can understand why the Torah was given in the desert, the silent place of speech, and not in a place like New York City. But why, then, was the Torah given in the midst of so much clamor? How do we understand the relationship between silence and sound and the place of Sinai?

Some commentators have been interested in exploring why the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, instead of some grander place at higher elevation. It is a relatively humble mountain, just less than 7,500 feet in altitude. It’s not even the highest mountain on the Sinai Peninsula. Why wouldn’t God choose a grand and impressive mountain to be the setting for the giving of the Torah?

Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk, an 18th-century Hasidic master, offers a nuanced interpretation of the implications of the choice of this site, one that can help us understand the role of the noise that accompanied the revelation of the Torah. God chose Mt. Sinai, he said, in order to teach us that we should see ourselves as servants to God — lowly, like the mountain. But, he cautioned, we have to be careful not to let our sense of humility bring us down so far that we become sad or depressed, which actually drives away the Shechinah, the Divine presence. In fact, the Torah instructs us to always be joyful, particularly during festivals like Shavuot, so as to invite in Her presence.

If we want to connect to that inner truth, we might seek out a quiet place in order to cultivate the quality of joyful humility that lets in truths we might not expect. Instead of feeling shame for what we do not know or cannot do, joy can create a kind of expansiveness that leaves us open to what we don’t yet know and might still learn. Parts of the Mussar world, focused on ethics and self-improvement, call this “hitlamdut,” the stance of humble curiosity and willingness to see each moment and every situation as an opportunity to hear something new. Sometimes we might even experience that newness as the Shechinah Herself.

This need for both humility and joyful openness brings us back to the question of why, given the power of silence to reveal hidden truths, the Torah was revealed with such boisterous drama. That kind of humble curiosity is difficult to cultivate, for us and certainly for people who were only recently enslaved. Perhaps it was the extreme contrast between the quiet desert and the thunderous mountain that startled the Israelites into the possibility of hearing something new. It was so surprising that they had no choice but to open up to a different possibility — and from that openness, they could hear God’s call.

Many of us associate Shavuot with a number of familiar practices: hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud, consecration and confirmation ceremonies celebrating the education of small children and teens, eating dairy treats like cheesecake, and staying up all night to study. It is unlikely that silence, humble curiosity and surprise are on the agenda. But perhaps they should be.

And who knows? Maybe even in a tumultuous place like New York City (or your own town or city), the startling Voice of God might be heard.

Rabbi Lisa L. Goldstein is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York City.

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