Sound of Silence

Today is the Jewish holiday Shavuot, the conclusion of a seven-week counting period from the start of Passover, the day on which tradition tells us God gave the Torah to the Jewish people.

Or, more accurately, the day on which tradition tells us that God gave them the ten commandments, speaking to them directly. Apparently overwhelmed by the experience, the Jewish people then beg Moses to act as an intermediary, leading Moses to head up the mountain for forty days, returning with the physical tablets of the ten commandments, and with an oral transmission of the rest of the Torah.

As with all of Judaism, the details of that story have been studied and debated over the millennia since.

According to some rabbis, God spoke only the first commandment to the people directly: “Anochi Adonai Elohecha, asher hotzeticha mei’eretz mitzrayim mi’bait”, “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

According to some others, God spoke only the first word of the first commandment, “Anochi”, a word of Egyptian origin meaning “I am.”

And still others say that God spoke only the first letter of that first word, the Hebrew letter aleph.  But aleph is a silent letter – neither vowel nor consonant.  It has no sound.  So what and how did God speak in that silence?  It’s an interesting question to ponder today, on Shavuot.

To that end, a poem I’ve long loved by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, “Silence”:

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

May 31, 2017