Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth - Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon

EREV ROSH HASHANA 2018

“Silence is Golden”

As I sat to write these words for tonight I settled myself in my office, paused to feel the sunshine on my face as the winter light streamed through my window and I recognised the great irony of the fact that I was about to write a sermon about silence, as the council dug up the road outside my house. The whole place seemed to vibrate along with the jackhammer as it assaulted the asphalt, the workmen shouted to one another over the din, a tinny radio struggled to make its voice heard and the busses hissed as they braked and weaved around the obstruction on the road. Silence. I craved it but there was little to be found here.

I also recognise the irony of speaking about silence. I was tempted to mirror John Cage and his famous musical piece 4 minutes 33 seconds, where the performer stands on the stage with their instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, in three movements. Apparently, the blank score says: “can be played by any instrument.” I was tempted to title this sermon 4 minutes and 33 seconds and just have us be present for a few moments in silence. But then I decided I actually really like my job and that was probably not the best route to take. So I am going to speak with you about silence and we can all appreciate the dissonance of that.

When we think about silence we often perceive it as a negative, an absence of something. We speak of uncomfortable silences, awkward silence, about the silence of complicity in a wrongdoing, not speaking when we should have found the words. We find it uncomfortable so we leap in to fill whatever void there is of sound. But silence is actually not an absence. Benedictine Nun Elisabeth Paule Labat wrote “at first sight silence seems to be characterized by an absence of sound and thus to be something negative. Yet on a higher level we sense that there is a positive silence, a silence which indicates not an absence but a presence, not emptiness but fullness.” Salome Vogelin says “Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening” [1]

Silence is more than a negative, it is a leaning into and towards something but we have forgotten how to lean into it. We have filled our lives with noise and we have lost the silence. A silence for which our souls yearn. A silence which we need in order to understand ourselves, to connect with who we are and from which we can reach out to others.

Our world is filled with noise, from the Latin word nausea, and it is making us sick. Studies have been conducted which show that noise is affecting our health. Our frenetic cities heaving with sound are causing increases in anxiety, depression as noise assaults us. Noise is being wielded as a weapon and it is used to manipulate our behaviour. Muzak was introduced to help to control the behaviour of consumers. Restaurants raise the level of the music at busy times to turn the tables over more quickly, pubs know people buy more drinks when particular music is playing. Shops choose music to suit their brand, to sell their image or their dream. It is rare to find a place of quiet. Music is pumped into our shopping centres, lifts, our cars, our ipods, our phones, we carry sound everywhere we go I even heard recently of someone who dove into a hotel swimming pool only to hear music pumped under the water. And on top of that, there is the noise of city living. It is hard to find quiet spaces in the walk of our daily lives. And our solution? Rather than creating spaces of quiet, cities are introducing soundscapes, artificial noise pumped out to mask the sounds of our frenetic lives, trying to create an artificial calm, a different soundtrack to our existence.

And all of this noise is moving us away from who we are because deep within us is a craving, a need for stillness because that is how our world began, that is how humanity was created. We started in quiet, we used to step gently on the earth, moved with whispers on the land, in harmony with the world and ourselves. But now we tread with giant, echoing steps which announce our presence as we mold and shape the world to our will, pushing the silence into the corners, fighting against our natural being but part of us still yearns and longs for the silence of the beginning.

The world was created in silence. Contrary to the term “big bang” the beginning of our universe was silent, creation was a moment of pure quiet. Astronomy professor Mark Whittle found that it consisted of a perfectly balanced release of energy where “there were no compression waves, no sound, just quiet, brilliant, live expansion.”[2] And so too when we turn to the mystics of the kabbalah speaking of the creation which we celebrate at Rosh Hashanah, they also found silence before the creative energy of God was set in motion through words. We often see the beginning as God speaking into the chaos and creating order. But the kabbalists envisioned God contracting into the darkness and the silence, Tzimtzum God becoming smaller to make space for the unfolding of the universe. A cosmic inhalation. The mystics wrote: “How did God produce and create the world? Like a man who holds and restricts his breath...” God retreated into the quiet in order to make the space to create.

And so it is with us. The creative energy, the force of opening ourselves to possibilities, of expanding our vision, is made possible when we step into the quiet. When we retreat from the noise of the world, the tohu va vohu, the chaos then we can find who we really are. But we are afraid of silence, we feel it is restrictive, it is darkness, hemming us in constraining us. When a group of young people were asked about silence three quarters of them spoke of times when they were silenced, where they could not find their voice, where they were not given a space to speak.[3] Silence was a negative, a destructive, evil force in their lives. Noise meant freedom, power, having an impact and relevance.

And perhaps we avoid silence because it can be confronting, it can be frightening, it can cause us to hold a mirror to who we are, to go deeply into our souls and we may not like what we see. It can awaken us to the dissonance in the world. If we stop and listen we might hear the cries of pain and suffering and so we turn up the volume of our devices, we go from one screen and soundscape to another and we numb and insulate ourselves from the world and inner being. Take a moment to think about the last time you were in the car without the radio on. Or were in the gym listening only to your own breath, or jogging or walking without music or a podcast in your ears. We are not listening to the world or ourselves we are listening an artificial soundtrack.

A group of dentists introduced something they called sound analgesia where patients were given headphones which masked the sound of the drill and when there was a particularly painful part of the procedure they were advised to turn up the volume of the music. Afterwards, they reported that the sound reduced their pain to the feeling of a small pin prick. We are using sound analgesia. We are shutting out the world, numbing ourselves to the realities around us and within us, avoiding the pain. But when we do that, we are also shutting out a part of our soul, the deep essence of who we are which craves quiet and silence, for it is from that sheltered place within that we can hear the singing of our souls, we can connect with what is within and around us.

So many of us are searching for spirituality, yearning to touch something beyond ourselves, to feel the expansiveness of the universe and our smallness and at the same time to reconnect, to find our place, our voice. And we look for it in the noise. We listen to TED talks, tune into podcasts, go to youtube, lectures, talks even sermons. But the answers are not there. The words and the commotion instead of connecting us with our spirit, form a barrier of sound which is separating and alienating us from ourselves and each other.

The ancient rabbis knew the power of silence to help us connect with our spirit. They taught that our souls need silence, they need to find the space to breathe, to feel, to be; just as the body needs sleep, the soul needs silence.[4] The most spiritually significant moments happen in silence. When the priests made the sacrifices in the Temple, there were no words. Amongst the chaos: the noise of the Levites singing their psalms and praises, instruments playing, people moving and talking, the priests went to a place of solitude, they did not speak, and they connected with spirit. We need to find those quiet spaces, to craft a pause where we can find our peace.

A Rabbi in America was given the task of building his own synagogue from scratch and he created a small room, right at the top of the shule away from everything else. The community were puzzled and asked him why, and he responded that amongst the noise of the community, people also needed a space where they could be quiet, together and at the same time alone in silence. Not many of us have the opportunity to build our own quiet rooms, but we can seek out the spaces, capture precious moments during the day. Nikki Gemmel writes in her book “On Quiet: “quietude felt like a necessary medicine but first I had to recognize where to find it. It was the first leakings of dawn in the night sky. The golden hour at sunset when the world was exhaling and the light was honeyed up. It was flicking an off switch on the great noise of life. The hand held out to someone unasked... A spiritual surrender. It was a house awaiting the return of the children. A breath held… It was a necessary listening pause…it was a gift.”[5] We can find the spaces for silence if we are conscious and actively searching. And it can be just a few stolen moments each day, it does not need to be hours at a time. Just some minutes to stop and be and from that silence we can open ourselves to new possibilities.

The rabbis teach that we find wisdom in silence. Rabbi Gamliel says, “all my days I have grown up amongst the sages and I have found nothing better than silence” [6] If words are worth a coin, says the Talmud, silence is worth two. [7] Silence is the path to wisdom, to a deep knowing. We all need those moments according to our sages, to help us make sense of the world, to think about our place in the universe and perhaps to touch something of the Divine.

There is the famous story of Elijah seeking to find God. He looks in the wind and God is not there, he looks in the earthquake but God is not there, he searches in the fire and still no God. But then he sits in the quiet and he finds God in the still small voice, the soft and gentle rustling, the slender sound of silence. So often we search for God in the noise. We use words and sounds, we fill our lives with racket and wonder why we cannot hear. The stillness and the quiet enable us to be open to the holy and the sacred, to hear the whispers of the universe.

Even though the Torah is filled with words it is in the silences that people encounter God. During Rosh Hashana we read stories where God hears the silent prayers, the words whispered into the universe. Hannah prays in her heart for a child, she cries out from the depths of her soul, her pain and her suffering and God hears and listens. From her prayers of the heart we pray our own amidah silently, the centre of our prayer service is recited in quiet, a moment of connection between each of us and the energy of God. One of the most powerful moments of my week is on Friday nights in the midst of the service where we pause in silence for the amidah. I am surrounded by community, a warm embrace and from that place I step into the silence, together and alone, a few minutes to stop, reflect and be. It is a magical suspension in time and space, available to all of us, powerful and beautiful. 

We imagine silence to be a solitary pursuit, where we take ourselves away from the world but it has the opposite effect. The Torah tells us of Abraham sitting at the door of his tent in the desert with God. The commentators were puzzled about this Divine encounter, where is the revelation? What can we learn from the silent sitting of God with Abraham? Straight after this moment Abraham goes out to the desert and greets the strangers and offers them hospitality. Holy silence leads to loving engagement and connection with others. It can help us to see our place in the vast universe, it can turn us towards one another in holiness and love and teach us of our significance and our smallness. Nikki Gemmel talks about the time when she was living in London and planes were not able to fly because of the ash cloud floating over from Iceland. She said during those days a quiet descended on the city, it was as if a soft blanket had been placed over the frenetic noise and the city let out a sigh of relief. She writes: “It was odd and unnerving at first, there was just a clear, deathly quiet blue that everyone looked up and marveled at. Then gradually into that vast sky, silence emanated something akin to God.”[8] And people were more kind, they reached out to one another, there was a connection which blossomed when it was planted in the nurturing soil of silence.

The practice of hitbodedut, of taking time for quiet to connect with ourselves and with the holy was a foundational practice of the sages. In the holy assembly they would be silent for an hour before beginning their prayer in order to be fully present. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav encouraged “find a day for yourself, better yet, late at night. Go into the forest or to the field or lock yourself in a room…you will meet solitude there. There you will be able to listen attentively to the noise of the wind .. to birds singing, to see wonderful nature and to notice yourself in it…and to come back to harmonic connection with the world and its Creator.”[9]

And the Jewish Mystic, the Ba’al Shem Tov said that if we find that silence we can hear the hum of the universe, the songs of the trees and grasses and they will unite and join with us and we will feel at one with the music of the world. But to hear the notes we need the silence. Suni Williams, an astronaut spoke about her time in space. She said, contrary to what we might think, for astronauts, being in space usually it is incredibly noisy; mission control and the other astronauts constantly speaking into an earpiece in your helmet. But one space walk something went wrong and the noise stopped and they were on the dark side of the planet earth, she said “we were just hanging out there, quiet, hearing ourselves breathe…and it was like putting on a pair of glasses…everything all at once so clear, like after a wonderful rainstorm…you could see the stars really bright, you could see the depths of space.”[10] Silence and quiet made everything resonate, brought everything into focus, gave clarity. She heard the music in the silence. But the music is not only heard in nature and space, there is music in our cities too. Dr William Braid White believes that our cities hum. He found that each city has a ground tone, Chicago, Eflat, London a low C and if we listen for the music we can find a place of peace and solace. He says we can “find a little of the concertgoers pleasure from an experience of sound which might otherwise strike the ears simply as noxious clamour.”[11] Very few of us will have the opportunity to go like Rabbi Nachman, into the fields and the forests, or like Suni Williams into space, but we can find the silences and hear the music in the midst of our cities. All we need to do is take off our headphones, turn off our devices, stop and just be. And what better time than these ten days between rosh hashana and yom kippur to pause and find some silence to reflect and consider the year that has passed and the one which will be.

We can all find that silence and if we do, in those moments, the sounds, the colours, the rhythm and the music of our lives will play a beautiful symphony which will open our hearts. We can connect with ourselves and with others, we can feel spirituality, feed our souls, find wisdom, creativity and peace.

 

[1] In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik, pg.

[2] “In Pursuit of Silence” George Prochnik pg. 86

[3] ibid pg. 285

[4] Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, pg. 144

[5] Nikki Gemmell “On Quiet”

[6] Pirkei Avot 1:17

[7] Talmud Megilla 18a

[8] On Quiet, Nikki Gemmel

[9] Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

[10] In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik pg. 10

[11] In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik, pg. 110

Join Our Community

Join Our Community

Established in 1938, Emanuel Synagogue is a pluralist community affiliated with the Masorti, Progressive and Renewal movements. We offer a variety of services, programs and activities. We welcome you to join us.

Become a Member
Stay connected to our community!
  • Linkedin page