Welcome to the pinnacle of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, the Awesome Days, the Awe-full Days, the Frightening Days, the Scary Days. This is what the Hebrew, Yamim Nora’im, suggests. What is so scary?
My great-grandfather, Yisrael Ya’akov, for whom I am named, and my great uncle, Shmuel Hersch, used to sit together in shul. Shmuel Hersch spent much of Yom Kippur in tears, scared out of his wits thinking about what might await him at day’s end. Only at the beginning of Ne’ilah, when he realized that he had prayed with great fervor, sincerity, and kavanah, did he feel that God would grant him a year of blessings. And only then did he allow Yisrael Ya’akov to comfort him by reminding him that this is what happens every year, and that when they get home and break the fast they will have a schnapps and everything will be fine. Both were righteous men, who were blessed by God with length of days and who were close to God all their lives. That is why they were so scared, because they always felt they could do more to please God, and they did not want to disappoint their Heavenly Parent. But then, when they realized they always gave God their best effort and that God loved them as much as they loved God, they allowed themselves to have that schnapps at the end of the day.
It is not surprising that the people who consider these holy days to be Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe and Fear, are the ones whose relationships with God are the most intense and the most intimate. They are less concerned about what God will do for them than they are about what they will do for God. They are the ones who believe that as members of Am Yisrael, the “Chosen,” God expects more out of them. For them, being chosen is not a privilege or something about which to gloat; it is a great responsibility. That is why these are the Days of Awe. They take to heart the words of God spoken to Israel by the prophet Amos (3:2): “Only you have I known from among all the families on the earth; therefore I will hold you accountable for all your sins.” That is why these days are so scary.
On the Yamim Nora’im — the time of year when we undertake the most probing self evaluation, when we need all the spiritual strength we can muster, when we need to feel the presence of Sh’khinah to guide us and focus us as we consider our failings and then to reassure us of our worthiness — we are pummeled by the Mahzor with the notion that God is an unapproachable, remote King who sits on an exalted throne of justice, while we are dust — seemingly worthless, lowly creatures who struggle with our sinfulness and are far removed from our Lord and Master. In this respect the Mahzor is scary.
The Aleinu prayer, which originated in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah, tells us that God is the King of the King of Kings, a title that intentionally elevates God into a realm far beyond ours. The Un’taneh Tokef tells us how exalted God’s kingdom is on this most fearsome — ayom v’nora — of days, a day that is announced with sounding of a frightening great shofar. An unknown liturgical poet tells us that God is Melekh Elyon, the Most High King, who is contrasted with the poor, earthly king, the melekh evyon. These and other prayers, seeking to fill us with appropriate fear and awe, leave us with the feeling that the gulf between us and God is unbridgeable. Might we not then arrive at a dangerous conclusion: forget about the effort to do t’shuvah, to bridge the unbridgeable gap and to return to God, because it’s a futile effort.
Thankfully, our Sages, in crafting the service for the Yamim Nora’im, include witness of God’s caring Presence. We find this in the Rosh Hashanah scriptural readings, in which God is depicted as being concerned about children: Yishmael, Yitzhak, Shmuel, and Efrayim. God also remembers women: Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, and the virgin, Yisrael. These are the powerless ones on whose behalf God mobilizes His immense powers to bless, to save and to redeem, because He loves and cares for them so much.
And, while the Un’taneh Tokef shakes us to our core with the words: U-v’shofar gadol yi-taka, “A great shofar is sounded,” it immediately counters with these words: V’kol d’mamah dakkah yishama, “a sound of thin silence is heard.” These four words are derived from the story of Elijah the Prophet — Eliyahu Ha-navi — whose life experience is a roller-coaster affair of highs and lows — that reminds us of our own lives.
After Elijah’s great victory on Mount Carmel, resulting in the death of 450 prophets of the pagan god, Ba’al, Queen Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, and he has to flee for his life all the way into the Sinai wilderness and hide in a cave on Mt. Sinai. He is totally depressed. And then, when God asks him what he is doing at Sinai, he bluntly tells God exactly what is on his mind: What is with you, O God of mine? Here I do Your bidding and help bring about a major and very public victory for You, and my reward is a death sentence from the very queen who is behind the Ba’al worship You so despise.
In response, God’s Presence descends upon the mountain, and God invites the prophet to come outside. Standing at the entrance to the cave, confused and frightened, Elijah experiences the awesome power of a “great and mighty wind,” an earthquake and a searing fire — a synonym for lightning. We are told, however, that God is in none of these — not in the wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the lightning. Then Elijah hears a kol d’mamah dakkah, a “sound of thin silence,” a purely mystical, profoundly intimate and ineffable expression of God’s Indwelling Presence. God again asks him what he is doing at Mt. Sinai, and Elijah repeats his statement of frustration and despondency. But when God responds by giving him his next assignment, Elijah snaps out of his “funk,” proceeds on his way, and carries out God’s orders. By sharing with Elijah this intensely personal expression of God’s essence, inconceivably powerful in its silence and intimacy, God affirms that He is with Elijah and will not abandon him.
In his brief allusion to Elijah’s theophany, the poet who authored Un’taneh Tokef reminds us that God is not found primarily in the awesome, often frightening natural phenomena that usually grab our attention, but rather in a sound of thin silence that is present nearby, within the subtleties of life, indeed, within our own souls, if only we would come out of our caves of worldly deafness and listen to it. He reminds us that God hears our voice when we are in crisis and responds, even when, like Elijah, we have given up all hope.
In using this phrase — kol d’mamah dakkah — the poet reminds us that, like Elijah, we have to come to the entrance of the cave to meet God. We have to keep the hearing channels open. Frequently we allow the wind and the earthquake and the lightning to drown out the sound of thin silence that is God’s response to our cry. And what are our winds, earthquakes and lightnings? Ego, doubt, disappointment, pain, anger, guilt, and hate. What opens the channels? Humility, faith, appreciation, wholeness, joy, reconciliation, and love. By juxtaposing the kol d’mamah dakkah with the shofar gadol — the great shofar — the way he does, the poet is telling us: Let the great shofar blast blow away the winds, earthquakes, and lightnings that make us spiritually deaf, and on these very holy and awesome days listen to the sound of thin silence that is calling us from within ourselves, from within the people whose lives we touch, and from within the ever-present Sh’khinah. The poet is telling us: Like Elijah on Sinai, open your spiritual ears and listen to the real voice of God.
I believe the most powerful forces in the world operate in the realm of the sound of thin silence and not in the realm of the wind, the earthquake, and the lightning. According to the Bible, what was the first act performed by God at the moment of creation? God spoke, and the first component of the created cosmos emerged: light. God said: “Let there be a photon of light.” I believe this was not the ear shattering Divine voice Am Yisrael heard when the Torah was given at Sinai. At the beginning of Psalm 19 — page 51 in the Mahzor — the Psalmist tells tell us that the sound of the heavens praising God is — as my dear friend, Rabbi Ben Segal, puts it — an “extreme paradox of sound heard and not heard.” Could this not also be the sound of God’s speech? Is it not possible that the beginning of the cosmos was really not a “Big Bang,” but a kol d’mamah dakkah, a sound of thin silence?
When an egg and a sperm come together in a womb and new life begins to develop, the sound of thin silence is present. The movements of subatomic particles within the atom operate in the realm of the sound of thin silence. The love shared by a couple walking hand in hand along a beach at sunset is expressed with the sound of thin silence.
For me, the most powerful moment when Perlman plays Beethoven’s violin concerto is not the rousing conclusion, but that moment 2/3 of the way through the first movement when he quietly plays two simultaneous contrapuntal melodies on two different strings. I think they call that double stopping. You have to listen very closely to this ultimate expression of the musical art, because the sound of thin silence is present. And, when Beethoven wrote those notes, the sound of thin silence was at work in the synapses of his amazing brain, because he wrote the concerto in 1806, and his deafness was quite severe. In fact, the deafness was already afflicting him five years earlier, in 1801, as we know from letters he wrote that year.
I believe that all these wondrous events are the products of the creative energy of God’s sound of thin silence that is present and resonating all the time. But I wonder if we adequately have trained our spiritual ears to hear it?
The sound of thin silence is also present when God calls on us to respond to problems deeply embedded within our own souls. I heard it in the cries of a forty year old man during a counseling session in advance of his father’s funeral. We were talking about what he should do with his five year old son during the funeral. “Should we bring him to the cemetery or leave him home with a caregiver?” he asked. I suggested that he bring him along and let him participate so he could say good bye to his grandfather, and that he be properly prepared in advance for what he will be experiencing. At that moment this man of considerable stature began to cry like a baby. I told him that it was good that he was crying, because he had to get his grief over the loss of this father out of his soul. He regained control of himself and said to me: “I am not crying over my Dad – not now. I am crying because I have been suffering for 35 years from feelings of anger and guilt. You see, when I was five years old my parents took my older siblings with them to my beloved Bobie’s funeral, and I was left home with the baby sitter. This filled me with all kinds of bad feelings. Rabbi, when you just said that I should bring my son to the funeral, you helped release me from my pain.” That sound of thin silence was crying out for 35 years, and, until that moment, he was not able to hear it. I cannot take credit for that release, because I had no idea that he was suffering. He made it happen — he finally heard it when he had to think about his son saying good bye to Zaidy.
The sound of thin silence calls out from the soul of an autistic child who expresses herself in unorthodox words and actions. It is embedded within that unorthodoxy and calls to us saying: This child has a creative potential that can be tapped and that can add tremendous meaning to her life. We have to learn to listen for that sound and help to open up the channel through which that powerful energy can flow.
The sound of thin silence cries out from the souls of loved ones whom we have hurt with harsh words that were spoken in haste. We cannot hear the voice because our spiritual ears have been deafened by egotism, doubt, disappointment, pain, anger, and guilt. The sound of the shofar and the messages of these days of awe and fear are intended to unplug our spiritual ears so we can listen to the sound of thin silence and hear the cries of our loved ones, and soothe their pain, and heal the emotional wounds we have created.
Take in the meaning of this holy day. Listen to the sound of thin silence within your loved that is calling out: “Hold my hand, kiss me, hug me, tell me you love me, care for me, really listen to my words, tell me you are proud of me, appreciate me.” Listen to the sound of thin silence within your own soul that is counseling you: “Drop your defenses, reach out in spite of your hurt, stop and listen to the other side of the story, forgive, ask for forgiveness, you really love her, he is an amazing person who is as imperfect as you are, do not take him for granted, say something wonderful to her.” Listen to God’s voice of thin silence that calls to us: “I have given you a world filled with blessings: love, beauty, compassion, loyalty, faith, healing, wisdom, knowledge, and so many other things. O human whom I have created, why do you reach for the darkness when there is so much light?” The poet is so right. The sound of thin silence is present to be heard. We have to learn how to hear it.
So, now we can pull together the strands of the passage in the Mahzor on which we have been focusing. Our job on these Yamim Nora’im is to spend the time here in shul working hard to shut out the noise of those forces that cut us off from God, from our loved ones and friends, and from our true selves. Our job is to hear the sound of thin silence, the inmost voice from God, resonating within other people and within our own souls, that calls us to repair what we have broken. If we hear that Divine voice — the kol d’mamah dakkah — and take hold of the gifts of repentance, prayer, and righteousness God as given us, we can effect a repair and promote healing now, we will better manage the challenges we have yet to face, and we will proceed into a future in which we can find new blessings and new hope. All we have to do is listen for the kol d’mamah dakkah — the sound of thin silence, heed its message, and respond to its call.
G’mar hatimah tovah.
Rabbi Joel Rembaum