On Family, Terror in Virginia, and the Sound of Silence

The Maccabeats recently released a cover of one of my favorite songs, the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. The song’s narrator describes a dream in which he sees a cult of thousands of people interacting without words, writing songs but never using voices or instruments to sing them. The principle they seemed to follow, written on a neon sign that serves as their only enlightenment, is that truth comes from silence. The narrator cries out to them that silence is malignant and fast-spreading, that voices must be heard, music played, to be redeemed. But his words fall on deaf ears, like the sound of rain drops falling when no one’s around – they have no impact. The narrator believes that silence is dangerous because it spreads, it covers up information and beauty and art. But the masters of silence argue that silence has something to teach us that sound never could, the value of humility, of soundless pain, of hiddenness.

Rav Kook, in שמונה קבצים, discusses silence as a lifestyle of the righteous. He explains that only in silence can one achieve a unity of all voices, a unity of all life, a pathway to the inner sanctum of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Voices are distinct, and represent only parts of reality; silence is the closest parallel to the infinite, a means to prophecy more powerful than that of Moshe Rabbeinu. Silence is necessary to become a צדיק, a particularly righteous individual, and to bring the light of משיח, of the Messianic age.

It is eerie how similar Rav Kook’s take on silence is to that of Reb Saunders in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” as to why he raises his son Danny in the way that he does. Reb Saunders explains that when Danny, who was in line to be Reb Saunder’s successor as Rebbe, was very young, Reb Saunders saw that Danny had a once in a generation mind. He feared that a genius with such an intellect is particularly at risk for losing his soul. So, like his own father did to him, Reb Saunders decided to raise Danny in silence, to teach him how to be a צדיק. Only someone who grows up with the pain of silence, with the pain of having to figure out how to comfort himself, how to stop his own sobs, to console his own heart, could come to understand the pain of others less fortunate than himself. Silence, according to Rav Kook and Reb Saunders, teaches empathy, brings one closer to his Creator, and makes one ready to be a righteous person.

Contrast that with the famous short story by the Yiddish author, Isaac Leib Peretz, entitled “Bonshta the Silent.” Bonshta suffers terribly throughout his days, both physically and emotionally, having been rejected and forgotten by everyone in his life. However, he never complains, never cries, never once questions G-d about his pain; after all, he was Bonshta the Silent. For this reason, when he dies, he is treated like a saint or celebrity. In the Court of Heaven, his prosecutor says, “Since Bonshta was silent in the face of tragedy, I will be silent about his guilt.” However, when G-d asks Bonshta what he wants in reward, Bonshta asks for nothing more than a daily breakfast of fresh bread with butter. The angels are silent in sadness and the prosecutor smiles. Professor Ruth Wisse, in her commentary on the “IL Peretz Reader,” explains that while silence is sometimes noble, too much silence, too much passivity is dangerous. It can lead to a lack of ambition, a lack of self-respect and human dignity, and a life forgotten.

Rav Kook and Reb Saunders argue that we have something to learn from silence about G-d and how to respond to suffering. However, Peretz and Simon and Garfunkel argue that we must be wary; silence can be dangerous, too.Today, as electronic communication becomes more sophisticated and prevalent,

Today, as electronic communication becomes more sophisticated and prevalent, traditional conversation has gone silent in homes, offices, and in government. Perhaps yesterday’s terrible events in Virginia highlight how essential real conversation is to understanding others, to ensuring that we are listening and sharing, rather than ignoring or fighting, including within our own families. The media has an important role to inform us, to help us analyze world events, and to provide transparency when those in power refuse to do so themselves. Nonetheless, sometimes we have to close the computer, put down the phone, and break down the walls dividing us from our family and our fellow countrymen.

About the Author
Rabbi Jason Strauss is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and a Judaic Studies teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.
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