President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
When I was little, I remember I would usually wake up and come out to the kitchen to find my mother sitting there with her coffee, reading a book or the newspaper. She would often have a notebook beside her, and whatever she was reading was marked up with sticky notes. In later years, the books and sticky notes weren’t there as much, and I would find her with just the coffee. I asked her about it once, and she told me that she loved the quiet time in the morning, before everyone else was up. It was her time to be alone, to listen, to think.
Like mother, like son: My best writing time (the time I’m writing this, in fact) is invariably early in the morning before anyone else in the house is around (and with coffee, of course). Most mornings I come downstairs, feed the dog and the cat, put in my earbuds and do a meditation sit. It’s my time to be quiet, to be alone, to listen, to think, before the rest of my household, the rest of the world, wakes up.
I’ve grown to cherish this time, especially these days, because of the quiet, the silence. Perhaps that’s because, like many others, I’ve been preoccupied with questions of silence and speech of late: Who is speaking up, and who is being silent? The phrase, “their silence is deafening” is all over the place. I see accusations of sinful speech or silence a lot right now: This university president or that corporate executive was silent–they didn’t say anything, or they said something but were silent about something else, and that makes them a moral failure. This is the stage we’ve reached in the current crisis.
Particularly in the age of social media, I think a lot of us feel like we have to speak. Since I was a child, I’ve been taught Elie Wiesel’s words about silence always aiding the oppressor, and so I feel a moral duty to speak. I feel Professor Wiesel’s quiet, intense moral gaze looking over me and asking, in his powerful whisper of a voice, “Josh, are you remaining silent?”
Yet Elie Wiesel was also a Hasid, and he knew the value of silence. Sama d’ukla mashtuka, silence is a balm for everything, says the Talmud (Megillah 18a). I imagine, if I were having a conversation with him, that he would have reminded me that there are multiple kinds of silence: Silence of absence, yes, but also silence of presence. There is a silence of fear, and there is a silence of courage. There is a silence that communicates disconnection, and there are silences that embody deep relatedness. And there is the silence of gestation, of creation, of possibility: The silence of the early morning, the silence that comes before the Creator says, “Let there be light.”
One of the things that makes the story of Abraham so intriguing is the seeming inconsistency between when Abraham speaks and when he is silent. Most famously we have his speech in protest at God’s planned destruction of Sodom (“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Gen. 18:25) and his silence when commanded to sacrifice his son (22:2-3). These both come in next week’s Torah portion. But we find intriguing moments of speech and silence this week, too: his plea on behalf of Ishmael (“O, that Ishmael might live by your favor!” in 17:18) versus his silence at God’s very first command, to leave everything he knows behind and go to an unknown land–and versus his deceitful speech, which a kind of absence-through-speech, with Pharaoh (repeated with Avimelech next week) to say that Sarah is his sister and not his wife.
I’m of the last generation to come of age before the internet and social media. (We still learned how to use a card catalog in school.) Perhaps that conditions me to try to recall what life can be like when we don’t feel the constant need to make statements, to speak, when we can create room for silences of presence, silences of possibility. I don’t presume to have a full answer to the problem of speech and silence right now, and it seems to me Abraham, too, was unclear. In some moments, speech is appropriate; others call for silence. And, as Abraham shows us, sometimes, perhaps much of the time, we may not get it right. Perhaps that can help us be a little more gentle with ourselves.
By way of conclusion, I want to share that I’ve found myself going to a core Buddhist teaching in the last few weeks as I’ve been reflecting on these questions of speech and silence, the practice of shemirat hadibbur or mindful speech, namely the Buddha’s five principles for right speech. These are often formulated as questions, and I find they can be useful both as I’m contemplating my words and as I’m listening to the words of others:
1. Are these words timely?
2. Are they true?
3. Are they gentle?
4. Are they beneficial?
5. Are they spoken with goodwill?
Jews are a people who love language. We love words. We believe the world was created through an act of speech, and our tradition conceives of every subsequent act of speech as an act of profound power–to create and nurture, to hurt or destroy. In this time of so much pain and difficulty, and in this age of so much speech, I think we could all benefit from more mindful silence for the sake of more mindful, creative, and life-sustaining speech.