Silence – Approaching Chumash Bamidbar
by Jeremy Rosen
In my schooldays one of the favorite punishments of our teachers was to get the whole school, when it got too noisy or out of hand, to remain on silence, sitting or standing, for five minutes. Those five minutes seemed to last for hours but in fact they had the effect of quietening us down, of dampening our rowdiness. But I cannot say that that silence had any positive impact on me.
The next kinds of silence I experienced came when I was a teenager sent off to study in Israel. Prayer time in the Mussar Yeshiva of Beer Yaakov was an amazing experience unlike anything else I had encountered in formal religious settings. There was a complete air of concentration, of commitment to words and ideas in which everything was savored and dwelt on with intention and expectation of encountering God. In that part of the morning and evening prayers just before we recited the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6.4) there was complete silence, a tense, expectant silence and then miraculously every one of the hundred or so voices broke out simultaneously in powerful unison, loudly,”Shema Yisrael.” That silence before the explosion of sound, was not the vacant silence of a disciplined school but the anticipatory hush of an impending climax. It was a silence full of anticipation.
During the break between sessions I hitchhiked with a friend down through the Negev towards Eilat and we stopped off for a day at Machtesh Rimon, that incredible crater deep in the desert. We got out of truck into a wall of dry heat that seemed to suck the air out of you and we started to walk away from the road. The heat was oppressive but far more striking was the absolute silence, not a sound, no cars, no birds, no leaves to rustle and no wind to blow around. Only the sounds of our hiking boots on the stones and the rocks.
It was not something eerie, the silence. It was like being complete. I do not suggest that I felt God in it. Perhaps I did. But it was unlike any other kind of experience I had ever had, that sense of being alone with the earth, a speck of dust in the universe with absolutely nothing else around. In fact it gave me an incredible sense of myself, of my vulnerability and of my privilege to be part of something much bigger than me.
And I understood then why deserts play such an important part in the lives of so many greaat spiritual figures, for good and for less good. The less good is that it gives one an exaggerated sense of self. But the better was that one experiences no distraction, no interference, just ones private communion with the universe.
And it made sense then, why the Children Of Israel as a whole people were transported out of metropolitan, tense and oppressive Egypt into the emptiness and silence of the desert. To be away from what they were used to, to be in limbo, to be in a place of silence. And in situations like those of hermits in caves or monks in cells or nuns in their isolation.
You can imagine anything, you can hear voices, your mind takes wings and you feel yourself connecting to power, energies you have never experienced before. It is exciting, elevating and potentially dangerous. People are better positioned to hear the authentic Voice of G-d that arrives through a genuine prophetic interlude. On the other hand, it is also easier to convince oneself that he has encountered the Divine. Perhaps that was why so many young priests and ambitious Levites rebelled against Moses in the desert. Because they genuinely imagined that G-d was speaking to them.
And perhaps that was why after Moses first encountered G-d in the desert he had to be given a constitution to ensure everyone else did not imagine that G-d had spoken to them other than through him. Mystical experiences are all well good. They are necessary. But they can also be dangerous. As the old saying goes “Mysticism, starts with a mist and ends in a schism.” But my experiences had taught me the importance of silence and if it is not always to be found in communal prayer it must be cultivated privately.
After my initial enthusiasm for my newly discovered religious experience came the hard slog to master texts , to struggle with Talmud and its armor bearers and over time in my hothouse yeshivas I discovered that studying Torah can also achieve this sense of grappling with the Divine of feeling a close connection, a love affair that transports one out of the mundane to such heights of devotion of the kind that one simply cannot experience in the secular, materialist busy distracting world. And the more one is drawn into Torah the less one finds sympathy for or connectedness to the world outside. And this explains to my mind the malaise of the yeshivah world today. For in its pursuit of its goals it has lost touch with the reality of ordinary people and their day to day struggles to survive and thrive outside the cloister. Its religious life is so refined and demanding that it becomes almost impossible for the average person to feel other than inadequate religiously. Once the community rabbi could offer that alternative paradigm. But increasingly the Head of the Academy is the voice that matters to the exclusion of all others.
And that I suspect is precisely why after the Book of Bamidbar, the wilderness and it’s silence, it’s isolation and the distortions it is capable of producing, we will then follow it with Devarim, things, objects and speech, for they are what bring us back down to earth.
Rabbi Dr. Jeremy Rosen was educated at Beer Yaakov and Mir yeshivas, and Cambridge University. He has served as rabbi of orthodox congregations in the UK and as Principal of Carmel College. He now writes and lectures and tends to a small community of Persian Jews in New York.