Thoughts on Silence

From time to time, I’ve helped a friend lead a Mussar worksop.  This week we’re discussing the Middah, personality trait, of Shetika, silence.  The following are some thoughts I gathered for this meeting.

Mussar Midot and Mitzvot

Shetika (Silence)

Don’t bear tales  “Lo Talech Rachil”

And you should serve The Lord  (daily prayer)  “V’Avadatem”

לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיך

(ויקרא י”ט: ט”ז)

“Don’t bear  tales among your people”

(Vayikra 19:16)

וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֵת יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

(שמות כ”ג: כ”ה)

“And you should serve the Lord your God”

(Shemot 23:25)

*   *   *   *   *

 Silence can be expressed both in terms of what we refrain to say and when we choose silence itself as a modality.

Our spiritual tradition associates the final ה in the Divine Name with the five organs of speech: the throat, tongue, palate, lips and teeth.  If we seek to destroy, our easiest and most convenient weapon is our words, employing slander, gossip, lies, insult and innuendo.  We literally destroy the Divine Unity overseeing our world by wrenching this final letter from His Name.

It’s always a lot harder to repair damage than it is to have prevented it in the first place.  Refraining from irresponsible and hateful talk, while it can be challenging in the heat of strong emotion, is always easier than trying to apologize, soothe hurt feelings and prevent reciprocal and compounding hatred from worsening any situation.

Related to Shetika, silence, is “Shmirat HaLashon”, self-supervising our speech.  This is the title of the classic Mussar book on Lashon Ha’Ra by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the famous Chaftetz Chaim, in 1876. The Torah specifies the mitzva of “Lo Talech Rachil”, emphasizing its importance.

The Amida or Shemona Esray (literally eighteen, although the prayer actually contains nineteen blessings!) is known as the Silent Prayer.  Recited three times a day, in combines praise, requests for our personal and communal needs and, finally, acknowledgement and thanks.  So important, the prayer now completely fills the functions of the animal sacrifices during the Temple era (and, thus, is structured in their templates).  Just as the Temple ritual was referred to as Avoda, Holy Labor, prayer is described in the Gemara (Ta’anit 2a) as Avoda She’B’Lev, Holy Labor within the heart.

Normal halachic rulings say that we should recite these prayers very quietly, giving just enough voice that we, ourselves, can heard each word.  In fact, we learn this from the story of Hanna who prays in complete silence for the birth of a son who turns out to be Shmuel HaNavi, Samuel the Prophet.  Eli, the Cohen, priest, who merely sees her lips moving but hears no sound mistakes her for being drunk!

The mystical tradition, however, teaches that, indeed, it can be an even higher and stronger prayer when it is completely silent.  This, however, depends on the kavana, the inner dedication/intention of awe and awareness that God can listen even in complete silence, to the cries and songs within our heart–He transcends the need of sound in order to hear.

At the very least, however, approaching silence is a way of preventing extraneous distractions from fighting for our attention when we’re involved in serious spiritual practice.  This silence, or at least near-silence sets the stage and frames our direct, thrice-daily encounter with the Divine Infinite, the Holy One Blessed Be He.  Another kavana, intention, we think of before entering the Amida is to reunify God’s Holy Name, partially by rededicating our ה, our five organs of speech, to our individual, unique holy missions in life.

The Meor Eynayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, repeatedly emphasize the Ohr, the great spiritual light and energy, that infuses every word of Torah and Tefilla.  He discusses the meaning at the word level, at the individual letter level, at the level of the nikudim (vowel points), ta’amim (musical notes), tagim/kitrot (crown-like decorations on select letters).  By utilizing our vocal ability, classically considered the differentiating characteristic between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, for only our highest purposes is a spiritual journey of bringing our best selves to our Avoda, our Holy Labor, especially within our hearts.

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