Through a Mussar Lens: The Gift of Silence
I have come to recognize a divine dimension to Costco. If you have ever shopped at that big box store (or Whole Foods, too, as someone pointed out to me) you’ll know that those stores provide free samples in every aisle, and that’s exactly how HaShem set up the world as well. Free samples of all the divine qualities are made available to us. You don’t have to do an iota of spiritual practice nor have any sense of relationship to God to experience awe at seeing a glorious sunset, or hearing superb music, or experiencing the birth of new life. Those free samples are handed out in aisle 12. So, too, with kindness, compassion and many other divine qualities: they are all available and known to all of us as free samples that come along with the experience of being human.
But you are not meant to live on the free samples. If you want to take home the big box (whether that’s breakfast cereal or, in my metaphor, the middah [soul trait] of yirah [fear/
We get another free sample of a divine middah (maybe in aisle 1?) when we experience the depths and beauty of silence in our lives. Though I am many decades from the experience, I can still vividly recall the breath-taking silence that descended on the world the morning after a huge snowfall, when the noises of the city are muffled into a timeless stillness. Evening by the glassy lake when the wind dies down and the leaves of the trees hang silently, as if suspended in a new forever. The stunning silence in a forest of giant trees. And you? What places and times come to mind where you took your free samples of the divine middah of silence [shtikah]?
Stop reading for a moment and experience the silence that is available to you right now. Even if you are in a noisy room, it is possible to tune into the silence behind the sound, the silence that is within yourself.
There you have a free sample of the gift of silence. To experience more of that, however, takes practice, and it comes as a surprise to many people to discover that silence is, indeed, a Jewish spiritual practice. But, of course, it must be simply because the soul is nourished by the experience of profound silence, and we are certainly not meant to feed our souls only on the free samples that happen to come our way.
Yet it is the experience of too many of us that an entire life in the Jewish world could be passed without ever encountering the practice of silence. More to the point, it is possible never to encounter silence itself in any Jewish context, except for the occasional frustrated “Shaaaa!” bellowed in the synagogue or at the Passover seder table to squelch the chatterers. Even the part of the prayer service designated as “silent prayer” is filled with prescribed words, even if they are meant to be recited without making a sound.
The rabbis in the Talmud discuss silence a great deal but mostly in a legal context. What does silence mean when two men have hold of a tallis and one of them grabs it away and claims it is his and the other remains silent? By remaining silent, he is taken to have agreed to the other man's claim under the principle of shtikah k’hoda’ah—silence is like agreement (Bava Metzia 6a). Or if a man asks a woman to marry him and she remains silent when he gives her money or an object of value that establishes the agreement, does her silence represent her acquiescence to marry this man (Kiddushin 13a)?
But aside from interpreting the legal ramifications of silent responses, silence has historically been held in very high regard as a Jewish spiritual value, so much so that silence is considered to be not only a practice or a behavior but actually a middah in its own right, an attribute of the soul. The implication is that, at this moment, one has a certain capacity or facility with shtikah [silence]. Like all middot, that capacity can be further developed through conscious effort and practice.
When we look into the writings of our ancestors, we find many examples of their great appreciation for silence:
“Silence is praise to You” (Psalm 65:2)
“Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said: ‘All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence.’” (Pirkei Avot 1:17)
“Rabbi Akiva said: ‘Silence is a fence to wisdom.’” (Pirkei Avot 3:17)
“Shammai would say: ‘Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much.’” (Pirkei Avot 1:15)
“The early pious ones used to tarry one hour preparing to pray, so that they could direct their hearts to the Omnipresent.” (Berachot 5:1)
“If a word spoken in its time is worth one piece of money, silence in its time is worth two.” (Megillah 18a)
Among the teachings of the Mussar masters themselves, we find a primary teaching of Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol (1021–1058) addressing the crucial role of silence on the spiritual journey. He wrote:
“In seeking wisdom the first step is silence, the second: listening, the third: remembering, the fourth: practicing, the fifth: teaching others.”
Silence is the first and determining step.
Much more recently, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914–2005) wrote in Alei Shur:
“The craft of a person in this world is to behave as if mute (Chullin89a)! The craft is not to be a babbler. This is something one must learn: since the baby knows to talk, he babbles as pleases him. Silence needs to be learned, because silence is a great skill, and by it you recognize the person of intelligence. The nature of the person is his solitude. Only in that does the soul and spirit develop their strength.”
My Mussar teacher, Rabbi Perr, once taught me the virtue he ascribed to silence. Only when we are silent are we able to hear the messages that are available to us “min ha’shomayim”–
Of course, there are free samples in that aisle, too. Who has not had the experience of coming up with a thought that is so insightful and so wise that it warrants a slap to the forehead and the question, “Where did that come from?” Or, “How did I know that?” It happens to all of us and it begs the question of the source of our thoughts. Occasional insights and wisdom pop out of us that we are certain we could never have discovered along the pathways of rational thought. But if we want to become insightful people, wise people, for whom those great thoughts are not such an uncommon, if known, event, then we need to practice and develop ourselves beyond the free samples that are gifted to us.
The practice for opening to receive more thoughts min ha’shomayim is to cultivate silence. There are no methods that will generate insights or wisdom directly because the source of that which may come through us is not really located within us. Clear and incisive thought into the deep nature of a person, situation or subject comes to us when we open the channel through which we tap a source that is broader and deeper than we are and to which we are intimately connected. The precondition and the method are to be quiet. Propagating inner stillness that is unoccupied by thought or sound is how you make yourself receptive to what will come your way from heaven. Then you receive. Then you wonder.
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