The Shape of Silence
I am drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book.
It’s early in the morning and it’s quiet—my favorite time of day. But what I’m experiencing is silence, not quiet. It’s the silence I only feel when my son is waiting for me to wake him up. A defining silence. A silence with a shape.
Once I was in a yoga class and we were chanting with the teacher. It was a small class, but it was a small room and it was crowded. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t hear the people next to me.
I couldn’t hear their voices.
It’s hard to pick out a single voice in a room with a lot of people chanting together. I tried listening to the person next to me.
Then I noticed the silence around her voice.
Not her voice. The silence. And I got it. We were chanting because of that silence. That silence in between our voices. The silence that connects us.
Our voices move into that silence and the silence makes room for them. It doesn’t resist. It can’t because without our voices in that room the silence couldn’t exist. And without the silence we would never hear our voices. They would be mixed together. Competing.
We need that silence because silence creates humility. I could hear because of the silence around me. If I had only been listening to the sound of my own voice, I would have missed the beauty of other voices and I would have been worse off for it.
This week we read Parshat Hukkat (Bamidbar [Numbers]: 19:1-22:1). The Israelites are in the desert and there is no water. Miriam has died and her well, which had provided water until that point, has disappeared. God tells Moshe and Aharon to assemble the people and speak to a rock in their presence and it will provide water for them to drink. It doesn’t work out that way. The story goes that Moshe hits the rock with his staff and, because of this, he’s not allowed to enter the promised land. Because he hit it instead of speaking to it.
Actually, he does speak. Just not to the rock.
… וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם…
He said to them, “Now listen, rebels, can we get you water from this rock?” (20:10)
Then he hits the rock.
I’m not sure it’s the hitting that’s the real problem. I think it’s the speaking to the people, rather than the rock. To me it sounds like he’s speaking to hear the sound of his own voice. He’s not speaking to the silence of the rock or, even more to the point, to the silence of the water. He’s talking to the people. To the rebels. He’s talking in opposition. About how great he is.
He should have spoken to the water. The water would have given him more shape than just talking did.
Water is yielding, it makes room for us. It moves out of the way to accommodate our shape, the same way silence gives our voice its shape.
It’s time to wake my son, so I open the door to his room. He’s awake. Reading a book. And the silence between us is a connection. It gives shape to our relationship: A son-shaped silence and a father-shaped silence.