Sunday, July 7, 2019

Parashat Korah: Silence

Thoughts on Parashat Korah 2019
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Silence is not merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, complete world in itself. Silence has greatness simply because it is. It is, and that is its greatness, its pure greatness. (Max Picard)[1]

And Korah, son of Yisshar, son of Kehat, took… (Bemidbar 16:1) – He attracted the Sanhedrin amongst them by fine words.[2]

Korah emerged on the scene with his mouth open and full of words. “You have too much” he exclaimed to Moshe and Aharon, “For all the community, they are holy, and in their midst is God, and why should you raise yourselves up over God’s assembly?” (16:3). Initially “falling on his face” in shock, Moshe then promised Korah and his followers that God would settle their claim in the morning (16:4). And, so it was. Instead of articulating a response to their protest, Moshe kept quiet, setting the stage for God’s punishment of the rebels.

In stark contrast to Moshe’s silent part in this controversy, the Hakhamim envisioned Korah as engaged in constant speech: “The whole night he went around to all the tribes and tried to win them over: “Do you really think that I care for myself alone? It is for all of you that I have a care!”[3] It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that he was dealt his death from a silencing mouth: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households and every human being that was Korah’s, and all their belongings” (16:34).

Why didn’t Moshe issue a verbal response to Korah and his followers? Although God was in no need of help to serve up their punishment, a spoken rebuttal by Moshe could have provided clarity for the people of Am Yisrael who were undoubtedly shaken and confused by the sudden affront to their leaders.

I remember the first time that I learned to be attentive to silence. It was from my Talmud teacher in the ninth grade. Upon reaching the punchline of a brilliant interpretation of HaRambam’s opinion on a particular matter, R. Zelig Prag exclaimed: “The greatness of this approach is that more than taking into account the words that Rambam did write, it notices those that he did not!” Indeed, the great scholar and rabbi, Prof. Isadore Twersky z”l commented: “One must be attuned to the silences as well as to the sounds of Maimonides’ writing.”[4] It was, as well, this very trait that the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noticed in Socrates, remarking that Socrates was not only “the wisest chatterer of all time,” but “equally great in silence.”[5]

While many of the situations that we encounter in life are best communicated with words, others are better expressed in silence. HaRambam wrote, for example, about how it is impossible for people to articulate God’s praise in words. Pointing to the pasuk “Silence is praise to Thee” (Tehillim 65:2), he posited that it is therefore “more becoming to be silent, and to be content with intellectual reflection” of God.[6] And the contemporary psychologist Benjamin Epstein similarly commented on our expressions of affection: “No matter how many times you repeat the words ‘I love you,’ no matter how hard you try to find the exact phrase to describe the emotion, you will inevitably come up short…while it definitely exists and can be deeply felt, no description can suffice.”[7]

As Korah and his followers assailed Moshe and Aharon with claims of “national holiness,” Moshe met their claims with silence. How could he possibly articulate words to defend a concept so abstract as kedushah? And so, as he listened to them babble on with a rational approach to God and sanctity, the contrast of his silence reminded all those assembled of matters that lie beyond the realm of speech.

Moshe’s silence transmits to us a lesson that extends beyond the specific errors of Korah and his followers. It teaches us that many of life’s most important realities transcend the application of words, and are perceived instead in the world of experience. While we may dream of an appropriate verbal expression of the depth of our connection to God and others, or the exact nature of our joy, pain and so many other emotions, Moshe’s wordless reaction taught about the “pure greatness” of silence.

[1] The World of Silence (Chicago, IL, 1952), pg. I.
[2] Commentary of Rashi to Bemidbar 16:1, s.v. va-yikah.
[3] Commentary of Rashi to Bemidbar 16:19, s.v. va-yakhel.
[4] Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven, CT, 1980), pg. 235.
[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Cambridge, UK, 2001), pg. 193.
[6] R. Moshe ben Maimon, Moreh Nevukhim 1:59.
[7] Benjamin Epstein, Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide for Everyday Life (Jerusalem, IS, 2019), pg. 118.