Tuning into Sacred Silence by Rabbi Danielle Upbin
As the world gets noisier, the need for quiet is more acute. Amidst the norm of blaring screens and the ubiquitous blue tooth headphones, I mourn the loss of quiet wonder. In silence, we are primed to perceive what lies beneath the surface. Even something as ordinary as breathing can become a sacred act in quiet moments. While it is possible to cultivate stillness with a bit of interest and effort, there are times when the roar of silence overcomes us quite unexpectedly. Pay attention because those occasions are often a run-in with the Holy.
I imagine that something of this nature engulfed our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai. Imagine a community gathered there, over 600,000 newly freed slaves. Even though they had prepared to meet God, I can hear them engaging in unbridled conversation, laughing, sharing their hopes and dreams for their new course in life.
As they stood there ready, the rumbling of Revelation began. The Torah describes the set up as an overwhelming sensorial event: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn…The blare of the horn grew louder and louder, as Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 20:16-19).
One might expect the cacophony to have continued as God delivered the “Ten Utterances”. But, our tradition offers an opposing idea. A Midrash teaches that as Revelation burst forth from mountain top, a palpable silence took hold of the crowd:
“Said Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird screeched, no fowl flew, no ox mooed, none of the ophanim (angels) flapped a wing, nor did the seraphim (burning celestial beings) chant “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh (Holy, Holy, Holy!)” The sea did not roar, and none of the creatures uttered a sound. Throughout the entire world there was only a deafening silence as the Divine Voice went forth speaking: Anochi Adonai Elohecha – “I am the Lord your God” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 29:9)
The “sound and the fury” got their attention, but the real message was delivered in a sacred silence.
The Torah offers another example of Divine stillness emerging out of a thunderous maelstrom. In God’s revelation to Elijah in the wilderness, God offers His power though the shattering wind, earthquake, and fire, but only in the calm that follows, is God perceived: “… And after the fire came a still small voice – “Kol D’mamah Dakkah”. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (I Kings 19:11-13)
We can see from these sources that our tradition embraces holiness through stillness. I personally experienced this notion, quite unexpectedly, in an airport terminal, of all places:
An old woman had fallen while waiting on line to board a South West flight. At first, it was unclear how she had fallen, but when people began to notice that a woman was crumpled on the ground, a remarkable thing happened – there was a “consensus of silence”. The normal hubbub of the airport terminal came to an abrupt halt. For the duration of a good five minutes, everyone’s attention at the gate was focused in the direction of the woman on the floor. Even the announcements over the loudspeakers all around has paused. The woman herself was eerily still as well. A small group of men, her husband and two others, were quietly hovered around her, assessing her need for care. The rest of us silently bore witness, instinctively reacting with what we could offer – palpable silence – like the proverbial “hush” that washes over the crowd.
What was contained in that silence? To me, it was unequivocal holiness. That silence brought tears to my eyes. It occurred to me that throughout society, in moments of heightened anticipation, fear of the unknown, or solemn witnessing, no announcement for silence is necessary. It is automatic and not just devoid of noise, rather fraught, focused, and alert. I imagine the base of Sinai or Elijah’s cave to have been just like that.
Coda: After about five minutes, the woman began to stir and slowly got up. It turns out, she had tripped over a piece of luggage and hurt her leg. EMS arrived to offer additional support. She seemed to be alright after all. As if to announce: “The coast is clear!” a tacit consensus resumed the normal din of boarding.
As we plough through the hubbub of our everyday lives, let us create the necessary space to cultivate inner calm in the storm – a space for stillness and deep listening. And if by chance you find yourself in an unexpected hush of a crowd, jump in and glean a message from the Divine.