Silence is a powerful thing that can be good or bad. If you see a crime being committed and someone being hurt or killed and you keep silent, it is sinful. How many people stood by and watched the Nazi brutes beat up, and haul away Jewish men, women, and children? How many kept silent as Jews went to their deaths? Standing by and saying nothing was wrong.
In the 1970’s Kitty Genovese, was assaulted, raped and killed in the courtyard of her apartment building in New York City. All her neighbors heard, but no one called the police. Fifteen people didn’t call the police because they either didn’t want to get involved, or thought someone else would have called. In this sense, speaking out means involvement. The Torah demands that we be involved in our world, and not keep silent when it comes to injustice, yet we chose to disengage when it is inconvenient or costly to us.
The other side of silence is also powerful. My father lost his hearing when he was 16 years old. For the following 70 years he heard nothing. As a young teen, having silence thrust upon him seemed more like a life sentence than any kind of blessing. Since he was a teen, he never heard music, my mother’s voice, my voice, or anything meaningful. Over the years, he became accustomed to his quiet world. It was peaceful and he was reconciled to it. A few years ago, at my urging, my father had a Cochlear Implant, a surgery intended to help restore his hearing. The operation was not a success, and the only sound he could hear was noise, or static. After a while, he turned off the implant hearing aid. The noise was just a distraction.
For us, silence is important, because in the stillness of it, we can think, reflect on the situations of our lives, and heal, learn and grow. Most incidental sound is noise or static. It takes our attention off what is really important. The scriptures say, “Be still and know that I am God.” In stillness, we find the presence of God, and in His presence we find healing and peace.
When Job was in agony, his friends came to comfort him. For a full week, they sat with him and said nothing. Their presence did more to help than words ever could. When they started to speak, they blew it.
In the movie “The Frisco Kid,” there is a scene where the rabbi becomes ill and is taken to a desert mission, where all the monks are under a lifelong vow of silence. The rabbi is amazed that people would make such a vow, since basic life interaction would become difficult. He asks for the salt, and when it is passed to him, he says thank you, a monk responds “you’re welcome,” and fears he has committed a sin. Everyone laughs, but the point is, as Jews we don’t indulge in asceticism. You can do something for a short time as a spiritual exercise, and learn what you can, but then you move on, because you aren’t allowed to disengage from life.
Silence is not a punishment, but a chance to hear your inner self and think. It’s a chance to listen to the voice of God, and encounter Him, and in that encounter, a chance to heal. Sometimes we need to move far from the maddening crowd.