Friday, January 12, 2018

Parashat VaEra: Silence

A Message for Parashat VaEra 2018
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And Moshe said before God, “Look, I am uncircumcised of lips, and how will Pharaoh heed me?” And God said to Moshe, “Behold, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother will be your prophet.” (Shemot 6:30-7:1)

God placed Aharon into the role of vocal ambassador to Pharaoh in response to Moshe’s reluctance to speak. He explained that although Moshe would continue as the direct conduit to Him, Aharon would now voice the messages to Pharaoh. Why, then, did God insist that Moshe accompany his brother on the subsequent encounters with Pharaoh? What was the purpose of Moshe’s “silent presence” at the palace of Pharaoh?

I believe that the answer to this question lies in a proper understanding of the role of silence in our lives. Best-selling author Susan Cain wrote about the hidden strengths of silence in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She noted the surprising reality that many of the world’s most effective people have climbed to success through a naturally inclined demeanor of introversion. Her list includes the likes of Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, Brenda Barnes (CEO of Sara Lee) and James Copeland (former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu). She quoted the findings of management guru Peter Drucker, that successful leaders possessed a broad variety of personalities and approaches, but generally shared one common characteristic: “They had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”[1] Cain then demonstrated the ultimate strengths of introversion by pointing to Moshe, and noting: “People followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well.”[2]

Moshe’s impressive stature as a leader, then, wasn’t built upon his spoken words, but rather upon the content of his messages. Indeed, Nessiv highlighted God’s unique description of Moshe as “a god to Pharaoh,” and explained that it meant that just as God can maintain his stature among mankind even without any direct verbal correspondence with them, so too would Moshe to Pharaoh.[3]

I would suggest, however, that beyond the important force of the content of the message voiced by Aharon, Moshe gained authority by means of the manner in which they presented it, as well.

Noted philosopher Erling Kagge referred to a unique style of many contemporary songs. The songs are introduced by long buildups which lead to “the drop” – the moment when the drums and the song’s most important themes kick in. They then turn quiet again, as the cycle repeats. He explained that this style is used in other realms of our lives, as well. For instance, in order to convince someone else of his position, the clever debater will introduce a pause before and after the crux of his argument. Kagge realized our tendency to become attentive whenever the soundscape changes and to doze off when it remains the same, and briefly surmised: “Our brains prefer contrasts.”[4]

This reality lends depth to the Hakhamim’s description of a worldwide silence prior to God’s first pronouncement at Har Sinai. [5] They were perhaps hinting that the silent prelude added a significant layer of potency to His words. Michael Fishbane similarly wrote: “The sounds of speech are meaningful only through the silences that precede them or carry them forward.” He suggested that the efficacy of prayer lies primarily in the preceding moments of silent focus upon the content of the words and their reference. Fishbane explained: “This is a spiritually pregnant silence, and gives birth to words framed by that silence and infused by it in every aspiration.”[6]

Perhaps God demanded Moshe’s presence when Aharon made his demands to Pharaoh in order to build the contrast between a silent demeanor and a loud message. Becoming a “god to Pharaoh” emanated from Moshe’s firm and silent stance at the very moment that his forceful demands reverberated off the walls of Pharaoh’s palace.

The ironic concept that strength can be manifested in contraction (or “holding back”) is most relevant to this analysis. The Lurianic kabbalists explained that God created the world by means of “contracting his infinite light” and allowing for a “conceptual space,” a principle widely known as “simsum. The awesomeness of existence, then, is borne out of His act of withdrawal. Mordechai Rotenberg furthermore pointed to the parallel demand of man to “contract” in order to “make room for others.” He demonstrated the necessity of man’s simsum in the realms such as empathy and education.[7]

The ability to withstand the urge to immediately voice our opinion and instead remain silent represents another dimension of simsum. Moshe’s approach to leadership teaches that in order to best transmit a message, the direct route of loud confrontation is rarely effective. A careful contrast between gaps of appropriate silence and a meaningful message will oftentimes work best.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[2] Ibid., pg. 61.
[3] R. Naftali Yehudah Sevi Berlin, HaAmek Davar: Shemot 7:1 (s.v. netatikha).
[4] Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise  (New York, NY, 2017), pg.108.
[6] Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago, IL, 2008), pg. 133-4.
[7] Mordechai Rotenberg, The Psychology of Tzimtzum (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg 21-2. See, as well, the comments of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 38, in the context of withdrawal from man’s innermost desires.