Dan Ornstein

The noise which brings quiet

What I always notice about water tumbling from a cliff or gurgling downstream is the way the noise from its rush makes everything around it sound much quieter. Perhaps it is because I am in the mountains, away from the distractions of urban life, work, and daily nonsense. Maybe it is because the pulse and swirl of water gently force me to listen to the inevitable movement of time and life around me.

I have experienced this paradox of the noise which brings quiet, during busy congregational missions to Israel. The waterfalls at the Ein Gedi National Park tumble gracefully yet loudly from several cliffs, down into thirsty pools, especially during the rainy season in February, when I am usually in the country. Yet all around us is silent, and in the steady thrum of the water, I find myself becoming more silent. I imagine King David before his accession to power, hiding in the caves around this spring from his murderous father in law, King Saul, crying to God out of that ambiguous mix of desperation and faith, “You will lead me beside still waters, won’t You?” I see him, the fugitive shepherd, listening deeply in the desert stillness for God’s voice flowing out of the waterfalls, “I will sate you with length of days and show you My salvation.”

I have also encountered this paradox walking the trails of a nature preserve that is located outside of Albany, New York, where we live. Last Sunday, my family and I had the rare blessing of a few hours of peace on those trails. Knowing that even the slowest hours of the summer would be snatched from us quickly, we set aside the housework, the homework, and the headaches, locked them up, and headed to the water-falls and the pond for which the preserve is famous.

The way to the preserve is a somewhat lonely, bucolic state road which winds past the Helderberg Escarpment, a long ridge of high cliffs that bridges the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. The road shares boundaries with some farms, forests, and lilac bushes that explode in the spring with brilliant fragrant purple. Here and there, a convenience store tries to assert human presence and commercial dominance; yet until we reach the road’s end in a tiny village near the preserve, I mostly feel like a guest visiting my gracious but somewhat aloof hosts, the trees, the stones, and the chipmunks, in their home, on their turf.

The one tiny road in the village leads directly to the trail head, where we parked our car. We swept out a dead bumble bee that had, until its untimely demise under my daughter’s foot, thrown us into noisy, buzzing pandemonium just minutes before when it flew through our open window, a hapless victim of wind currents and its God given capacity for speedy flight. All around us, the noise which brings quiet reverberated with overlapping melodies, its music emerging from the mountain streams and the water fall that is the preserve’s crown jewel. We hiked the gently sloped paths, stopping only briefly along the lower and middle falls. We shortly arrived at the upper fall and looked out over the clear mountain water that pooled in swirling eddies before crashing down over the smooth stones to the stream below. The sounds of the water fall’s flow were so strange to me, for if I closed my eyes, I might think I was listening to the all-day hum of traffic where that same state road adjoins my neighborhood back in the busy, distracted city.

However, my eyes were open, my ears were attuned, and I attended carefully to the water, a permanent, marching army of impermanence. I thought about how here in nature, everything feels entirely un-changed, even as it is always moving through the cycles of life, death and rebirth. The poet and naturalist, Wendell Berry, expressed this with great insight:

The river is a place passing
through a passing place…

I asked myself if my wife, my daughter, the people near us, and I were also nothing more than guests passing through those passing places: mere transient collections of time, bone, blood and breath that, like rock, break apart into sediment that washes away? The sun was high in the sky, and it was time for Mincha, the afternoon prayer. With my family looking on, I stood on a ledge and began the opening line of the Ashrei prayer:

Ashrei yoshvei veitekha, od yehallelukha selah.
God, those who dwell in Your house are happy; they will forever praise You.

Now I remembered. We are, in fact, like the rushing, noisy water, passing through this passing place, but we are not merely renting space from implacable nature, handed keys to a room for the night, only to be chased away by checkout time at 11 AM. We are honored guests, lodging joyously, if not forever, in God’s house: our bodies, this nature preserve, the world and its fullness.

In that noise which brings quiet, I took three steps backward and forward to say the Amidah, the silent, standing prayer, and I prayed.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at