Friday, October 12, 2018

Parashat Noah: The Sound of Silence

The Sound of Silence
Thoughts on Noah 2018
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Setting out to restart humanity after the flood, Noah encountered an unfamiliar world. The world he had previously known was created by God’s words and continuously sustained by His direct speech to mankind. But Noah no longer heard that voice. And as he searched for direction in an empty land, God’s explicit advice – which had once guided his every decision – was gone.

And Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself within his tent.
(Bereshit 9:20-1)
In his sad state of confusion, Noah drank himself to self-exposure. The lack of clarity which defined his new situation – a reality so familiar to us all – was unbearable for him.

David Gelernter commented on our own difficulty at discerning God’s true will in a world marked by His silence. He wrote:
That still, small voice you hear: is it the genuine voice of God, or merely the human stirrings of your all-too-human mind? The image you have arrived at: is it a sign (like the burning bush) of God’s presence? Or only a strange dream?[1]
Indeed, most of our spiritual struggles stem from that perplexing “silence” of the world we inhabit. Our lives are overcome by stress and anxiety on a continuous search upon roads that are not clearly marked. They resemble Noah’s challenge after the flood. How can we succeed?

In the opening passage to his Mishneh Torah, HaRambam famously described the fundamental missvah of “yediat HaShem” – knowledge of God. In contrast to the opinion of other Jewish theologians who stressed “emunah be-HaShem” – belief in God, HaRambam never mentions that concept.[2] The classical explanation for his omission is that HaRambam found emunah to be superficial and incomplete. He posited that the simple acceptance of God forms a much weaker connection than actual knowledge of Him. Some scholars have argued, however, for an alternate definition of emunah. They render it inseparable from knowledge in our connection to Him. Referring to a person as ne-eman – from the same root as emunah, for example, implies not a blind faith in the individual but rather a strength of connection – a reliability.[3] Emunah, then, is an integral component of our relationship with God. Although the foundations of that bond are built upon knowledge, their stability draws from emunah. During those all-too-familiar “Noah moments” of silence and vulnerability in our lives, we must turn to emunah in order to sustain the strong base of knowledge that we have built.

Our spiritual ambitions in this life of silence, however, must stretch beyond the realm of mere prevention. Philosopher Erling Kagge articulated the depth inherent in the silence of our relationships. He wrote: “Without the tenderness that can follow peace and quiet, it is difficult to sense the nuances in a loving relationship, to understand one another.”[4] Indeed, speech is often used as a defense mechanism to avoid the various truths of a relationship. It is the piercing “sound of silence” that exposes all that really exists between one and another. It strengthens our general consciousness and draws out levels of perception and understanding that are often overlooked in a world of constant speech.

I distinctly remember the time that I visited an elderly talmid hakham at his home in the Bronx where he was sitting shivah for his wife. Stepping into his modest living room, I was immediately overcome by the quiet that pervaded. I found my seat amongst the many guests in the room and stared awkwardly at the man in utter silence for a full half hour. As I left the home, however, I realized that by simply observing the facial expressions and demeanor of the mourner I had learned more about his wife’s impact upon his life than any words may have expressed.

Faced by the daunting challenge of silence after the flood, Noah’s feelings of insecurity drove him to the embarrassing state of drunkenness. That same world of quiet which he encountered, however, is the one we continue to inhabit. Drawing strength from emunah during our most difficult moments, those enigmatic “sounds of silence” in our relationship with God are the ironic bearers of potential growth.

[1] David Gelernter, Judaism: A Way of Being (Grand Rapids, MI, 2009) pg. 164.
[2] Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1.
[3] See R. Moshe Shapiro z”l’s discussion of this concept in Re’eh Ne-eman (Jerusalem, IS, 2009), pg. 19-27. See, as well, R. Avraham Baum’s Et La’asot to Derekh HaShem (Jerusalem, IS), pg. 32-4.
[4] Erling Kagge, Silence In the Age of Noise (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 120.