Shutting Out The Noise: The Quiet Work Of Repentance

I’ve always loved the story in First Kings about Elijah and his triumph over the priests of Baal. Like so much of the literature of the Early Prophets, this episode reads like an action adventure novel. The Israelite prophets waged a long and taxing battle against the powerful allure of the indigenous Canaanite cultic life that the Israelites discovered when they conquered the land. Elijah’s victory was a great moment in that struggle.

Spiritually, the appearance of God to Elijah in a kol d’mammah dakkah– a still, small voice– is particularly rich. After all the sturm und drang of the story itself, the fact that God’s “voice,” as it were, became audible to Elijah is the quietest of ways, as opposed to via the loudness of the natural events that preceded the revelation, has always been meaningful to me. God is in the quiet as much as the noise… maybe more.

Where do you go to find quiet these days? It’s not a small question, because the steadily encroaching reach of communications technology– something I touched on last week– has served to make even the idea of quiet seem like a dream.

Walk into any room today, and virtually everyone is either wearing or carrying a smartphone. Between the ever-unwelcome intrusion of an eclectic variety of ring tones and the alert “beeps” that can be anything from a barking dog to a sonar ping, we have become a noisy society. And what’s worst, of course, is that we have become completely dependent on this technology, and convinced that we can’t function without it. We complain about its intrusiveness, and know that our complaints are well founded, but we are hopelessly hooked. Take away our smart phones and we go into a state of high anxiety.

Spiritually speaking, this penitential season of Elul and the High Holidays requires us– certainly metaphorically, and often literally as well– to shut out the noise that all too often accompanies our waking hours and live in a more silent world for a few weeks. We need to be able to hear our own kol d’mammah dakkah, our own still small voice, because that voice is the voice that speaks truth to us.

If this were an easy task, we might still be disinclined to do it. After all, who wants to hear the truth about him/herself? Who wants to admit to it? When others tell us the truth we can deflect it, saying that they’re wrong, or exaggerating. But when our own inner voice, stripped of all external defenses, tells us where we are falling short of the mark, human nature will still struggle to find a way to avoid the message. Anna Frank wrote famously about the ego and the mechanisms of defense. We humans are crafty, and our subconscious minds are remarkably agile and wily.

But all of this assumes that we can even access our private still, small voices. For many of us, that remains a stretch. We live, as I said earlier, in a world of noise, of radios, TV’s, phones, computers, and all manner of electrical appliances that intrude on our existential and auditory quiet. And, of course, the world itself, and the endless news outlets that report on it, blare out to us relentless worrisome news that is designed to produce in us a sense of disquiet. Even when the physical noise of that news disappears, the psychic unease persists. How do we shut it all out?

There is no one, unifying answer to that question, nor does there need to be. What the penitential season requires of us is a commitment to engage the struggle… to make the effort to shut out what ordinarily keeps us from looking at ourselves in any serious way, and focus in on ourselves, our relationships with the people that we love, our relationship with God, and with world at large. So much work, so little time…

Not by accident does the timeless High Holiday prayer of Unetane Tokef echo the words of the Elijah story from First Kings. The great shofar is sounded, the still small voice is heard, and the terrified angels proclaim that the Day of Judgment has arrived. We are but a few brief days away from Rosh Hashanah. There is still time to take this spiritual challenge seriously, but as President Obama might say, the fierce urgency of now is upon us. Seize the moment. Do the work.

To all of you who read my columns from near and far, please allow me to wish you all a new year that will be blessed, with good health, happiness and prosperity. May we all be privileged to enjoy a year that will reflect the hard work that we have done to improve ourselves, and because of that work, may we be privileged to help fashion a world that will be at peace.

Shanah Tovah!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.