The Sounds of Silence
(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
For the benefit of those who did not hear my remarks about the election this past Shabbat, I am enclosing them here. I welcome your feedback, whether in writing or in person.
With best wishes,
The Rigged Election Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
This has been the most unusual election that I can ever remember in my lifetime. Now that the results are in, half of America is elated and euphoric. And, the other half is devastated and in a state of shock.
I count myself among the disappointed. I’m disappointed that America elected a person who made fun of the handicapped, who bragged about assaulting women, and whose tweets could have been lifted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I think that America made the wrong call. But, America has the right to make the wrong call. That’s the way our democracy works. I was glad to see the president elect Trump was gracious in victory. And, I was equally glad to see that Hillary Clinton was gracious in defeat.
Politics is not for the faint hearted. People of each side say nasty things about each other. And, it is tempting to say that this is just the way the game is played. I am reminded of football games that are played with tremendous intensity. And, then when game is over, you see the players from both sides chatting amiably, patting each other on the shoulder, as if ten seconds ago they weren’t mortal enemies.
But, I don’t think this is an exact analogy. We are much slower to heal from verbal attacks than physical attacks. Verbal attacks are much more personal. And, this has been an especially contentious campaign. The verbal combat was so intense that in one of the debates, the moderator actually asked each candidate to say something nice about the other one. When they did, it was a moment of huge relief.
I’ve never seen that happen before. And, I think the reason it happened is that in this campaign more than any other, the way we speak to each other when we disagree, the way we see each other was an issue in and of itself.
This did not begin with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The decline in civil discourse in America has been building for years. I know people whom I love and respect who are convinced that President Obama is an evil man and that he hates the American people and that he hates Jews. And, I know equally nice people who see no difference between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. Those attitudes are a problem for American democracy. Because it is only a short jump from seeing a leader as evil and seeing the people who support that leader as evil. Is this really how we want to run our country?
Marriage counselors like John Gottman tell us that couples who stay together learned to disagree without contempt for each other. That’s just as true for a nation that stays together. And, we’re having a hard time doing that right now. Somehow, we have to find a way to move beyond mutual contempt.
I want to go back to a moment shortly before the election. When it looked to Donald Trump that he might lose, he began to tell his supporters that the election was rigged. And, in response, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who supported Hillary, wrote an article called “How to Rig an Election.” And, in his article, Krugman says the election was rigged by partisan media like Fox News which trumpeted falsehoods, and then retracted them so quietly that almost nobody heard.
Both Krugman and Trump were wrong. They were using the word ‘rigged’ in a very loose way to mean ‘unfair’ or ‘biased’. So, no, this election was not rigged, not in the usual way we use this word. But, I’d like to unpack for a moment the anxiety that’s underneath this word, because I think it holds the key to our moving forward as a nation.
When you say something is rigged, you mean that the outcome is pre-determined. And, in this election, at one time or the other, you could feel the frustration of both sides—a feeling of helplessness— a feeling that things were set in stone—and an anxiety that we couldn’t do anything about it.
A few weeks ago, Krista Tippet responded to an email inquiry about the election. Krista Tippet is a journalist who interviews people on her podcast “On Being.” She has conversations with all kinds of people—architects, astronomers, musicians, Buddhist monks. And, the common denominator for these interviews is the spiritual side of the work these people do.
Recently, Tippet received the following inquiry: “In light of this year’s election, do you still believe in the power of conversation to open people’s minds? I try to include in my social circle people who are different from me politically. I don’t want an echo chamber. But, when I was asked recently to defend Hillary to a Trump supporter, I wondered ‘what is the point?’
Krista Tippet decided to respond to this letter in a 7 minute video to the public. And, she said that we often make the mistake of thinking we have failed if we don’t convince the person we’re talking to. But, the purpose of conversation is to establish a connection with the other person, not to implant in them our ideas. Another way of saying this is that, too often, our conversations are rigged. We are not entering them with an open mind.
And, an alternative to that communication style is suggested by today’s parasha. God says to Abraham, ‘lech lecha mei’artzecha’. Literally this means ‘leave your land.” Land is something that is fixed. It doesn’t move or change. So, what God is really saying to Abraham is ‘leave your certainties. Have the courage to let go of a pre-determined assumptions. And, go to ‘a land I will show you.’ Be brave enough to enter unknown territory.
The midrash compares Abraham to a bottle of perfume that is opened and is moved around the room. In this way, Abraham began to travel and teach and have an impact. But, Aviva Zornberg points out that perfume is a stimulant for romance. It’s not the love itself.
So, the genius of Abraham was not that he implanted his ideas into the minds of his listeners. It’s that he got people excited about learning. And, the same can be said of God’s teaching. The Torah compares God’s relationship with us to an eagle that stirs up the nest, beating its wings against the nest so that the little ones get all agitated and start to lift off on their own.
When God approaches Abraham with the news that God is about to destroy the wicked Sodom, God is stirring the nest. God is provoking Abraham, agitating him to think, to challenge, to wrestle with moral decisions on his own.
Zornberg says the purpose of God’s addressing Abraham is not to impart a fixed content. It’s to awaken an inner vitality. And, Abraham rises to the occasion.
This is a great model for democratic discourse. The purpose of an election campaign is not for us to implant our fixed ideas into the minds of the other side. That’s not a conversation. That’s rigged. That’s two sides encountering each other with a pre-determined outcome in mind.
Our problem is that both sides, Democrats and Republicans, look at each other as caricatures. We don’t see each other as real people. Democrats need to learn that it’s not reasonable to dismiss half the country as yahoos and rednecks. We cannot claim to be tolerant and exclude white working class people, or people who go to church every week. We cannot claim to be inclusive if we see black poor as ‘cool’ and white poor as ‘trash’.
Republicans have to stop dismissing half the country as being an elite, as if anyone with a college education is a snob whose greatest pleasure in life is to make life miserable for people who do the real work of this country with their hands. That is a ridiculous stereotype. And, it’s a ridiculous stereotype and a dangerous one to categorize every immigrant or illegal alien as a criminal or a freeloader.
We don’t know each other. We each live in our own bubble. And, if we are going to heal as a nation, we have to change that. We have to change the way we speak to each other. We have to change the way we see each other. And, to do that, we have to re-imagine the purpose of our political conversations. The purpose of our conversation is not for us to implant our ideas into our robotic opponents who don’t understand what we do.
That’s not democracy. Democracy is a conversation that awakens the inner vitality of the American people. It stimulates thought. It generates nuanced debate. It opens us to each other. It changes us, all of us, as we learn from each other. It brings out a potential for us that otherwise would remain asleep.
It’s not too late for us and our new president elect to learn this lesson. It’s not too late for us to learn to see those who see the world differently than we do, not as our enemies, but as our greatest allies.