David Walk

Strength in Silence

God performs two amazing feats of prodigious power in this week’s Torah reading. Most famously the Eternal parts the Sea. That was awesome. However, perhaps, even more incredible, He gets the Jews to be silent. We are a loquacious group, to put it mildly. God has Moshe declare to the nation huddled by the shore of the Sea: The Eternal will battle on your behalf, and you will remain silent (Shmot 14:14).

So, there is the demand that Jews silently witness the miracle of the Sea. Just a few verses earlier the Jews were ‘crying out’ (Shmot 14:10). But now they must observe in total silence the salvation of God. Why was the silence so important?

One could say that this added to the drama of the moment. Masses watching in perfect silence while the Creator of the Cosmos bends nature to perform the Divine Will. We can barely imagine how incredible it must have been.

The Chizkuni suggests that God doesn’t want to hear their beseechings because they have been using their vocal skills to complain and even degenerate God’s gift of freedom from Egyptian bondage (Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that You brought us to the desert to die?!, verse Shmot 14:11). God just didn’t want to hear their whining. Think of God driving an SUV filled with kids across the Desert. Quiet is good, thank you.

The Shem M’Shmuel offers that God prevented them from praying because this event was on the seventh day of Pesach, and was, therefore, comparable to Shabbat, when we are supposed to consider all our work already completed. On Shabbat we behave AS IF all our work is done; that memorable day they enjoined to act AS IF their prayer was already answered. Until it really was.

Rav Jonathan Sacks Z”L makes a truly remarkable comment:

The Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of Divine-human encounters; “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” An “awakening from above” is spectacular, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human…

Rav Sacks then comes to a quite remarkable conclusion:

Because human beings have taken the initiative, something in them changes…An awakening from above temporarily transforms the world; an awakening from below permanently transforms our internal world. The first changes the universe; the second changes us…In Judaism, the natural is greater than the supernatural since an “awakening from below” is more powerful in transforming us than is an “awakening from above.”…Divine intervention changes nature, but it is human initiative – our approach to God – that changes us.

Cool! That observation is also moving and profound. But I’m going to demur. It almost minimizes the Splitting of the Sea. The Crossing was a seminal event in human history. Our Sages demanded that we recite the Song of the Sea everyday to be worthy of the Eternal Salvation. I agree with Rav Sacks that we had to learn to act on our behalf in the unfolding of Jewish destiny, but the Yam Suf incident is the greatest single event in Jewish history according to most authorities. In rabbinic literature it’s up there with Creation.

I would prefer to go in another direction. Rabbi Reuvein Chaim Klein of Yeshivat Ohr Sameach made a very cogent comment which moved me into a very different mindset. He begins with the point that TACHARISHUN is a special term for ‘remain silent’. And, of course, he’s right.

Before I go back to his comment, I must point out a significant verse, which I’ve been reciting daily since the beginning of the War on Chamas: Do not keep silent, O God; Do not hold Your peace or be still, O God (Tehillim 83:2). That verse contains the three Biblical terms for keeping silent: DOM, SHEKET and CHEIRESH. 

The Malbim, God bless his soul, does his ‘thing’ on this verse, and explains the different nuances of each term. Remember, the Malbim is very insistent that there are no synonyms in Biblical Hebrew.

Thus, the Malbim explains: DOMEM is the cessation of speech, total silence; SHEKET is the opposite of action or activity, passivity; CHEIRESH is the opposite of response, forbearance.

Rav Klein then offers other examples of CHEIRESH in Biblical Hebrew. Later in Shmot (35:35), the term CHERESH is used to describe certain specialized craftsmen who wrought the beautiful items of the Mishkan. He then powerfully quotes Mordechai’s exhortation to Esther: if you keep silent (HACHARESH TACHARISHU) in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter (Esther 4:14). That means ‘Don’t sit around planning strategies, get up and act, immediately!’.

Aha, now we have Rav Klein’s very cogent take on the term CHEIRESH:

The silence of cheresh is related to the silence of incubating one’s thoughts…Basically, cheresh is considering what to say or do next.  

So, let’s retranslate our verse: The Eternal will battle on your behalf, and you will contemplate the ramifications of this miracle on you and your behavior.

I like that! Most of history is the critical characters acting to bring about the desired objective. However, once in a while we are told to stand on the sidelines and watch the power and glory of God.

An analogy in the recent history of our beloved Medina is a bit feeble, but can, perhaps, help us understand the phenomenon. In 1991, during the first Gulf War the world’s one superpower at the time, the United States of America, demanded that we sit idly while Saddam Hussein launched 39 Scud missiles our way. Sometimes, one’s role is but to stand by and watch. However, this momentary pressing of the ‘pause’ button must get our brains working in overtime, to contemplate future moves.

God knew that our ancestors were still at the beginning of their eternal saga. They needed to watch and excogitate the scene with the full understanding that our turn at bat was on the horizon. One must use the time in the ‘on-deck circle’ well. Observe and plan your turn at the plate.

I loved the message of Rav Sacks, but I feel strongly that Rav Klein had a better at bat. After all, according to Rav Sacks the more important event in this parsha is our fight with Amalek. But everyone calls this significant Shabbat: Shabbat Shira. Not Shabbat Amalek. So, this Shabbat, let’s sing the glory of God, and pray that it appears for us soon. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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