Here is my newest article for Rosh Hashanah.
In the midst of the High Holiday liturgy, Jews around the world recite a prayer that describes the imagery of all of humanity passing before G-d in judgment. In describing Judgment Day, the prayer states; “The great shofar is sounded, and a silent, still voice is heard.”
The blowing of the shofar, the act of crying out to G-d through the use of an animal’s horn, is described as a wake-up call. We are to arise and open our eyes to be more conscious of the world and of ourselves.
The sound of a shofar is the primal cry of all humanity, mimicking the different cries experienced during loss. Yet, we are simultaneously tasked, as the stanza indicates, to also hear the silent, still voice.
What is this silence, and how does hearing the silence between the sounds of crying enhance our growth as human beings?
Life today is very noisy. We are constantly inundated with the wonder of instant communication and technology. While there is tremendous value in having everything at our fingertips, we have lost the ability to hear the silence.
In “Ethics of Our Fathers,” a work of ethical and moral statements of the rabbis of old, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: “All my days I grew up around sages. I found that there is nothing better for the body than silence; explanation is not the essential feature, rather action; and all who speak too much will come to sin” (Chapter 1:17).
One explanation offered reads this piece as a unified, single subject. One should limit what one says about material, this-worldly subjects. Additionally, one should not be so cavalier as to think speaking about spiritual matters is a simple task as well. One should be just as careful about discussing spiritual matters because words become meaningless and fleeting when there is nothing concretizing one’s thought. Finally, if one does speak more and doesn’t perform, one will bring about negative judgment towards everyone. In other words, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is describing a contemplative quiet; a person needs to learn the value of choosing the appropriate moments to speak.
The still, small voice of Rosh Hashanah is about hearing the echoes of life. Whether we laugh or cry, those sounds are the overt expression of our emotions. The challenge is to hear those same sounds when we are afraid of being expressive. When sitting in synagogue, reading the different pieces of liturgy, are we hearing our thoughts as well? Do we understand the words we are reading and what they say about life? Have we given ourselves time to be internally reflective? Do we hear the cries of the others around us? Or are we scared of the inner voice, so we do all we can to drown it out?
As we enter the Jewish New Year of 5773 on Sunday evening, may this be a year we hear the quiet between the tears, the silence between the laughter, and allow that silence to be a guide for a sweet and meaningful new year.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner is the campus chaplain for the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, which comprises the Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living, the Lena and David T. Wilentz Senior Residence and the Martin and Edith Stein Hospice. For more information, call 888-311-5231 or visit www.wilfcampus.org.