B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

The music of silence

The below is adapted from a kavanah I gave at an evening prayer service on Thursday, October 12, 2023 at Ahavath Achim synagogue. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Silence is the friends who aren’t reaching out or the work colleagues who miss opportunities for compassion. 

Silence is also the selective omission. The front-page story with a picture of a destroyed building in Gaza and silence about the terrorist target hidden in it. It’s the facebook post with graphic descriptions of the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians and silence about Hamas’s responsibility for that suffering. It is the inflammatory rhetoric against Israel–“apartheid.” “genocide.” “white supremacy.” “colonialism” to reflect decades of conflict–paired with silence about the rapes, murders, kidnappings, and inhuman celebrations of atrocities committed on Israeli citizens mere days ago. 

And in the age of speak up culture, it’s silence about atrocities against us alongside clear-throated denouncements of atrocities against other groups.

When there is so much going on around us, how is it that what isn’t going on–the absence of a voice–is so noticeable, and so brutal? 

Parshat Bereyshit–the creation story–begins with a phrase describing an emphatic lack. In the beginning, it says, the earth was “tohu vavohu.” Translations of this phrase abound. “Formless chaos.” “Astonishingly empty.” “Confusion and emptiness.” “chaotic void.” “empty hollowness.” “without form and empty.”  “chaos and vacancy.” “void and nothingness.”  “desolation and waste.”  This pre-creation state is so very empty, so very lacking in anything, that we cannot express it in words and have no concept of it. 

Hostility and evil is as darkness to light; we can tell the difference between the two and we can make sense of it, even if we must posture ourselves as enemy to it. But silence plunges us into that formless chaos beyond light and darkness. No time, no space. No clear danger from which we can seek safety. No friends, no enemies. No names. No opposites. Nothingness. Absence. 

There is another kind of silence.

At the end of our Amidah, our siddur contains a concluding passage to send us out into the world following these precious moments with the Divine Presence. It ends with “Ose Shalom,” And begins with this: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. Let my soul be silent to those who curse me; let my soul be as dust to everyone.” Nafshi tiddom v’nafshi k’afar.

When others curse me, let my soul be silent, still, let my soul be settled like dust. 

The paragraph goes on–frustrate the designs against me, God; open my heart to Torah; bring our people deliverance; answer my prayers. All relevant. But what about these two first lines. Must we be silent in response to curses, must we remain still in response to violent provocation? Surely, this is not the moment to center humility and compare ourselves to dust?

In the book “My Grandmother’s Hands,” Resmaa Menakem discusses the power of a “settled presence” in seeking justice. Energy whether unsettled or settled is contagious. Successful leaders leverage a settled presence to inspire, to fight for justice. Trauma, both lived trauma and intergenerational trauma like the Holocaust, sits in our bodies. It unsettles us, it rattles us. It tears us apart. 

This war is one not just of guns and bombs, but of words and silence. In the midst of provocation and horror and hypocrisy, we ask God for embodied quiet within. We visualize the chaos within us as specks of dust, stirred up, and then settling on the ground. We seek that grounding, that silence in our souls so that we can find strength and give strength to others.

For those who crave musical spiritual practice at this time, I invite you to immerse yourself into the peaceful silence offered in this final paragraph of the Amidah. My bandmate/husband and I have found inspiration in these lines.

For the first few lines, here is a call and response meditation (link is to a dropbox scratch recording on my spouse’s phone, from 2012 – false starts and bum notes and all).

For the final “Ose Shalom,” here is a prayer for peace to the tune of Simon & Garfunke’s “Sounds of Silence,” at a time when our souls are anything but quiet and our world knows anything but peace.

We chant these words asking for nafshi tidom v’nafshi k’afar so that we may march on, fight on, persuade on, live on, breathe even as we suffer both words and silence.  Just as we ask the dust within our souls to settle, we pray that on the other side of this, there will be peace for Israel and for the whole world.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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