Thursday, April 7, 2016
From the Silence of Indifference, then to Find Our Voice and Speak
I felt horrified twice on Monday morning when I opened the newspaper to read of yet another slaughter of innocents. I sought to know of the terrorist attack in a park in Lahore, Pakistan on Easter Sunday, needing to know, dreading to know. It was an attack on Christians, yet of the more than seventy victims so many were Muslims, all as one, in death if not in life. And the children, the children, dozens of children killed in a park on a Sunday, not just any Sunday, a Sunday of resurrection in Christian tradition, of rising from the dead. If only, if only, not of one, but of all.
On the Sabbath ending that painful week, in its Torah portion and its special theme in the journey to Passover, there was teaching about the power of silence, not the silence of absence and avoidance, but the silence of encounter and embrace. So too, in the comfort of that Sabbath came teaching of death and our responses to it, of horror in the face of sudden death, of the universal reality and ubiquity of death, of the challenge to somehow go beyond and continue on the path of life. In the Torah portion called Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1-11:47) on a day that should have been one of glory and pride, as of a sun-filled day in the park, seeing his sons take up their role as kohanim, servants of God in the Sanctuary, resplendent in their finery, Aaron sees them struck down, dead before him. When Moses offers empty words, barely acknowledging the horror of what has happened, the Torah says, va’yidom Aharon/and Aaron was silent. In response to Moses’ silence of absence, Aaron’s silence thunders in its presence. Soon after, still hearing the echo of Aaron’s fully present silence, we come to the very middle of the Torah. The very middle of the Torah is in the silent space between two words, darosh || darash/search || truly search. In the course of our seeking, we come to that silent space, a place of pregnant solitude in which all is held, all that comes before and all that flows beyond, a place of presence and pause, of possibility.
Of silence and its possibilities, Elie Wiesel speaks of three types of silence. He speaks of “practical silence” as that of indifference: “The world is going to its doom, and mainly because of its indifference…; not so much hate but the indifference to hate…” (“Against Silence, the Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel,” ed. Irving Abrahamson, p. 55). He then speaks of silence that is “a gesture, an act, a deed, a testimony against indifference…; a very eloquent silence, a screaming silence, a shouting silence…” (Ibid, p. 56). The third silence of which Wiesel speaks is a “mystical silence, a poetic silence, …a creative silence, which is a mode of language.” It is through that silence, a silence of awareness that we come to know what needs to be said, what we are called to say. In the newspaper’s silence of indifference that would make us mute as well, we pause to find within ourselves the creative silence that becomes language, then to find our voice and speak.
That Sabbath, a day of resting for inspiration, was also the third of three special Sabbaths that bring us to the month of Nisan, helping us to prepare for Passover, for freedom and its journey. It was Shabbat Parah/the Sabbath of the Heifer. The additional Torah reading (Numbers 19:1-22) tells of the offering of a red heifer, a ritual by which to purify from contact with death. It is real and immediate, a way to acknowledge what is and to go on with each other, holding sorrow and hope as one.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein