The Secret Art of Silence

by Moshe Kempinski

Sirens will be sounded during the commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The painful wail of the sirens will be heard in every city, on every highway and in the midst of every Jewish farming settlement. At that point, most of Israel will come to a complete and silent stop. Cars idle in the middle of the roads, children stand at attention in the midst of their walk towards school . Most of Israel’s citizens are caught in a painful freeze-frame as the Jewish people connect to the memory of the slaughtered, gassed and burnt Jews of Europe.

It is a very poignant and moving moment that attempts to make a very dramatic and eloquent statement. Generations of Jews, in a very silent and dignified manner, stand in testament that those souls have not been forgotten and that the pain lingers eternally in the common soul and heart of the Jewish people.

There are those in the community who refuse to partake of this ceremony as they sense that this is a foreign and alien way to “remember and give meaning.” Many of those prefer to silently read psalms or to say a hushed prayer – another very powerful statement of faith and connectedness.

Yet, there are even others who separate themselves completely, in a display of self-righteous public flourish and drama, and by so doing, bring great desecration to G-d’s name and to the memory of the slain. Yet, is the custom so foreign and so alien?

We read in Leviticus (10) that in an almost ecstatic response to the appearance of Heavenly fire in the tabernacle, two of Aaron’s sons wanted to add their own fire. Though their actions came from a deep desire for increased holiness, it propelled them into the delicate zone of Divine experience that becomes very dangerous if not protected by Divine regulations and structure. The intensity of that encounter burns up their very soul.

“1 And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before HaShem, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before HaShem, and devoured them, and they died before HaShem. 3 Then Moshe said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that HaShem spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.”

We see again, in a very mysterious midrash brought down in the Talmud, that silence seems to be the remedy for the inexplicable:

Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe (Moses) ascended to Heaven to receive Torah, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, affixing the flourishes and crowns on each Hebrew letter of Torah. Moshe desired to know the secret and importance of these seemingly unimportant flourishes and lines.

“God answered: ‘There will be a person several generations from now and Akiva, the son of Yosef, is his name. He will teach great wisdom from each of the crowns.’ Moshe responded: ‘Master of the Universe, let me see him!’ God: ‘Take a step back.’ Moshe thereupon went and sat at the back of Rabbi Akiva’s class, but did not understand the content of what was being discussed. He became extremely saddened. At one point during the class, however, a student asked Rabbi Akiva: ‘What is the source for that law?’ To which the teacher responded: ‘Halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai’ – ‘This is an understanding handed down to Moshe at Sinai.’ Moshe was relieved to understand that the understandings being taught by succeeding generations would be those that would be revealed at Sinai.

Thereupon, Moshe said to HaShem: “You have such a man and yet You give the Torah [to Israel] by me?”

HaShem replied: “Be Silent! This is what I have decided (literally, ‘So it has come to My mind’).”

“Moshe responded: ‘Master of the Universe – You have shown me his Torah – now please show me his reward.’ …Moshe was then presented with an image of the Romans raking Rabbi Akiva’s flesh with hot combs.

“Moshe said: ‘Master of the Universe – this is Torah and this is its reward?’

HaShem responded: “Be silent, this is what I have decided!” (Tractate Menachot 29b)

We live in a world where we are told that there is an explanation for everything and a solution for every problem. Living in this part of the world has taught many of us that this axiom is not always true. Our very return to this land defies all logic. Our continued existence here seems beyond comprehension, with all the hatred that abounds around us .Our survival makes no sense considering the foolhardy and dangerous decisions our own leadership seems to constantly fall into. Sometimes, reality makes no sense and sometimes problems have no immediate solution. The only way to come to that understanding is to attempt, at times, to be silent.

Moshe was told to be silent and then he would understand. Aaron knew that the only way he could comprehend and cope with the death of his two beloved sons was to keep silent. Elijah is taught that G-d is heard in the quietude of the “still silent voice [kol d’mama daka].”

“11 And He said: ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before HaShem.’ And, behold, HaShem passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but HaShem was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire; but HaShem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still silent voice.” (I Kings 19).

We will probably never understand the senseless slaughter of innocent men women and children .Yet, there is the possibility that we may find an oasis of some comfort in this sea of pain if we learn the art of being silent. That ability will give us the opportunity to learn the next step, the deeper art of listening with our ears and our hearts. Only when they have learned that will we hear the call that has already been declared so long ago.

On the shores of the sea, with the desert closing in on both sides and the Egyptian army of Pharaoh advancing from the rear, Moses turns to a frightened people and declares the dramatic words, “Fear ye not, stand still and watch the salvation of the Lord.” (Exodus14:13) One might think that the idea is to stand still and await salvation.

Yet, that would miss the point.

When Moses declared those famous words, he was corrected by G-d Himself: “And HaShem said unto Moshe: ‘Why are you crying out to Me? Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward.'” (Exodus14:15) Stop speaking and listen, and understand that redemption necessitates moving forward. Salvation is determined by stepping into destiny.

When the Jews marched out of the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka, a few ended up on the shores of Israel. They faced the blockade of a British Empire, which had reneged on their promise to open the gates to the ancient Jewish homeland. Yet, these people continued to move forward. After that obstacle, this tiny land was attacked from all sides by Arab nations bent on their destruction. Yet, history and Jewish destiny continued to be moved forward.

Individuals who had lost everybody and everything in the graveyards of Europe chose life and family, and rebuilt a future and a hope out of ashes. They and their children would again have to battle the attacking armies of their Arab neighbors several more times, and Jewish history and destiny continued to move forward again .Even when part of the nation became tired and lost their vision, a clear remnant remained that would not and could not stand idle.

Tired leaders and politicians will have to make way for the young pioneers who will not stop moving forward. In this week commemorating the Holocaust, thousands of young people are participating in the March of the Living, which attempts to trace the infamous death marches of the final days of the Holocaust. Except this time, the marches will not end in starvation and death, but rather will celebrate life. These groups will end their march in Auschwitz in song and prayer, and then get on a plane to celebrate Israel’s Independences Day in Jerusalem.

G-d declared “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.” A large portion of them are listening and doing just that.

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