(sing this famous Simon and Garfunkel song!)
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dare
Disturb the sound of silence
“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”
Today’s parasha is about the sounds of silence. Joseph’s brothers hate him so much that they throw him in a pit and later sell him into slavery. In next week’s parasha, we hear the brothers speaking to each other years later of their regret. They say: ‘our brother cried out to us from the pit, and we didn’t listen.’
It’s a very striking image. Twenty years after they sold Joseph, the brothers are now hearing his cries for the first time. It took twenty years for those cries to reach their ears. What’s just as striking is that in today’s parasha, we do not even hear Joseph’s cries. The Torah makes no mention of them. That’s a disturbing silence!
I am reminded of a later story in the Bible, the story of Chanah. Chanah has trouble conceiving, so she goes to the Sanctuary in Shiloh to pour her heart out. But, the high priest Eli mistakes her for a drunk, because, Hannah’s lips are moving, but no sound is coming out.
What a powerful image! Hannah has this great pain inside of her, yet to the outside world, she is silent. She is speaking, she is crying out, but no one can hear her. It’s as if someone has pressed the mute button, and all the world can see is Hannah’s lips moving.
The Joseph story has this feel too. It’s as if Joseph’s brothers have pressed the mute button. They can see his lips moving, but they hear no sound. And, twenty years later, they release the mute button, and suddenly, for the first time, they hear their brother’s cries.
This soundlessness has deep roots in this family. Early in the parasha, the Torah tells us of Joseph’s brothers: v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom/they couldn’t say a kind word to him. The Torah is letting us know that this family has a speech problem. Speech is blocked. It cannot come out.
That’s why it is no coincidence that visuals are so central to this story. I saw a video recently of an English conductor by the name of Benjamin Zander. Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. He is as known as a music educator as he is as a conductor. And, he gives talks all around the world on the nature of good leadership.
One of the things Zander points out is that as the conductor of the orchestra, he does not make a sound. The person who is ultimately responsible for this great music is himself silent. His point was that the role of the conductor is to draw the music out of the musicians. To do this, he has to be a better listener than a talker.
But, there is another way of looking at this. And, that is, that if we are on mute, if we are not being heard, then in order for us to communicate, we have to wave our arms around very vigorously. We have to rely on the visual.
So, Moses is described by the Torah as a kvad peh, slow of speech, someone who had difficulty expressing himself through sound. No wonder that Moses becomes the leader who communicates through spectacular visuals. He throws his staff to the ground and it becomes a snake. That’s how he gets Pharoah’s attention.
Later, when the Jewish people have pressed the mute button and are deaf to Moses’s words, Moses takes the tablets of the ten commandments and he smashes them against the mountain. That’s how he gets the Jewish people’s attention.
In the same way, Joseph’s brothers feel that their lips are moving and no one is hearing them! They have a need for love as much as their brother Joseph. But, Jacob their father is not paying any attention. He has pressed the mute button.
So, the brothers realize they have to do something visually dramatic if they want to get their father to look at them. They realize they are dealing with a father who does not show his love through words, but visually. He gave Joseph a colorful coat.
So, what do the brothers do? They show Jacob Joseph’s bloody coat. And, they let him draw his own conclusions. Few words are spoken. The visuals do all the talking in this family whose words are locked deep inside.
But, the story doesn’t end there. As the story nears its climax, several chapters from now, Joseph is now the viceroy of Egypt. The brothers come to him for food with hat in hand. They don’t recognize him. And, after he plays with them for several months, and after he sees that they have truly changed, the Torah tells us ‘v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek’—Joseph couldn’t keep the words inside of him anymore. He clears the room, except for his brothers, and he the words come pouring out of him, ‘ani yosef’—I am Joseph.
What’s so interesting about this moment is that at the beginning, the brothers are stunned to silence. After talking and talking, Joseph finally says, “v’achshav, eineichem ro’ot!—look, you’re eyes are telling you that it is my mouth speaking.” It’s as if Joseph realizes, this is a family that is so crippled in its speech that the only way he can communicate with them is by visuals. They may not be able to hear him. But, they can see his mouth moving.
But, this time, it is different. The brothers have shown kindness by offering themselves in place of their brother Benjamin. Joseph has responded by treating his brothers with kindness. This is the first time that these brothers have ever really heard each other. So, the very next thing the Torah tells us is: v’acharei chein dibru echav ito/after Joseph finished speaking, his brothers spoke with him. This is the first time in their lives that these brothers were really able to speak with each other.
What is the Torah trying to tell us here? The Jewish people need to struggle with the problem of being heard in order to become better listeners. When we are enslaved in Egypt, God choses a leader, Moses, who is a k’vad peh, who has trouble getting the words out, who feels that he has trouble being heard, who believes people don’t listen to him.
Why? The Jewish people do not need a leader who will dazzle them with his oratory. They need a leader who will listen, because Egypt has pressed the mute button and no one has heard their cry for 200 years. They need a leader who will wave the baton and draw the music out of them, like Benjamin Zander. That is what Moses’s staff is.
And, we can even go a step further. Bible professor Benjamin Sommer in his latest books says that God is like the orchestra conductor and we are the ones who produce the actual music. He says the Torah is what we the Jewish people produced when God waved the baton. The direction, the inspiration are God’s. The words are what we produced in response to what we think God wanted of us.
Perhaps we can also say that God chose a kvad peh/ a leader who had difficulty getting the right words out because God himself feels that way. No one is a more frustrated communicator than God. When a human being commits an act of terror and yells ‘God is great’, we can imagine God yelling in frustration, “No, no! That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I am trying to say.”
But, God does not give up. God is still waving the baton, and we are still the musicians trying to hear the sound inside of that silence. For that to happen, we have to ask ourselves: whose cries have we put on mute? And, in our answer to that question, maybe for the first time, we will be able to hear the voice of Hannah and the voice of Joseph. And, we will be able to hear each other’s voices—black and white, red and blue, husband and wife, the jobless, the homeless, those of us struggling with a debilitating illness—so that no one of us will feel that our lips are moving but no sound is coming out.
Benjamin Zander is able to elicit great music from his students because he is attuned to the sound in their souls that hasn’t yet been articulated. When we are able to hear that sound of silence in each other, the hopes that have not yet been expressed, the dreams that are still locked inside, then great music will come into the world. And, that music is the voice of God