Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed...the se did not roar, creatures did not speak-the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth:"I am the Lord thy God.(exodus Rabah 29.9)
The written Torah has a completely different account of the context of divine revelation. The Book of Exodus relates:""As the third day dawned there was thunder and lightening and a dense cloud upon the mountain ...and Mount Sinai was all in smoke...and the whole mountain trembled violently...the blare of the horn grew louder and louder,as Mose spoke God answered in thunder..." (Exodus 19:16-19)
It can be claimed that there is no contradiction between the account of the written word-nature's dramatic eruption, and that of the oral Law, the dominance of silence. One could have followed the other. First there was the spectacle, then the silence. I would like to think however, that both settings represent ways by which the human soul experiences revelation.
I prefer the understanding of the Oral Law. Some need the dramatic, the overwhelming, the overpowering to submit to a divine reality. The sensational has wide appeal.
But, the Rabbis had the keenest of spiritual insights when they arrived at the understanding that the most fertile and receptive soil in which revelation can be planted and grow sturdily is the soil of silence. Words and spectacular natural phenomena, while striking and impressive, circumscribe the orbit of heavenly revelation.Once a word is spoken or recorded, its meaning takes on a specific definition, often inhibiting a wider and indeterminate range of possibilities. Likewise a passing natural phenomenon- stirring and majestic as it may be, its impact is often a fleeting one.
A silent hush, by contrast, is a realm of infinite possibility, a space in the mind and heart in which God's voice can be heard with the greatest of clarity-neither words nor natural sound interfere with a communication that is utterly pure.
Many of us are uncomfortable with silence; we grow restless, even anxious. So filled are we with sounds-from others, from sources of mechanical communication-TV, cell-phones, I-pods, computers etc. that silence is equated with lifelessness, with emptiness, with a sense of utter confusion.
Perhaps it is this spiritual setting of silence, of emptiness, that is the most fertile for spiritual aliveness and fullness. The Rabbis remind us that the deepest revelations take place surrounded by the sounds of silence.
As we celebrate and listen to the words of revelation-the reading of the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth-words of great beauty and compassion, let us sit in silence , allowing ourselves to encounter these words in the heart of our souls.
As we express our gratefulness for the sounds of Torah, so do we experience gratitude for the gift of silence.