on hearing silence

Following my fuzzy shepherd, I stepped outside into the wintry back garden. The snow, now in piles and furrows from her excited romping and rolling, brightly reflected white into my eyes. Warm winter white. As I turned my eyes upward I could see only deep bright blue and white fluffy clouds. Icicles dripping and pooled water on the porch. Rhododendron leaves, deep forest green, readying themselves for the April warm. The sight of the garden, and my fuzzy, excitedly whining pooch, brought immediate smiles. This is Shabbat: These sights. This warmth (rhetorically speaking of course- it still is 30 degrees out…)

I threw the ball and watched her pounce and duck and dig. I stepped inside for more coffee and took a quick pic of the cat Cat sitting on counter in sunbeambathing in the only sunbeam in the kitchen. The contrast to my knee-deep in snow and loving it shepherd was ironic. I stepped back outside to play and paused, the dog focused on some unknown, unseen mark- looking beyond the street. I stepped beside her to look. “What do you see darlin’?” And I looked.

There was the black asphalt street , gray-snow laden and packed with cars- as nose to tail as the snowpiles allowed. The snowy tree branches. The sun. Nothing. And yet, she was focused. If she were a pointer, she would have been in tripod-stance. She did not turn her face nor cock her head to my saying her name. Her ears were forward and focused.

And so I closed my eyes. Immediately, the sparrows’ chirping flooded my ears, rushed through my nerves, and danced around my brain. Their chattering echoed at first but, when I focused in, I could hear the individual calls and retorts. I could hear them landing on branches, taking off and swooping to perch on the gutter- now a temporary bird bath and drinking fountain. A breeze moved through slightly and I turned my face toward the sound of the few leaves clinging to the maple that stands in front

Icicles hanging from Rhododendron bushof the house our house. The breeze lifted them up and they rustled and danced- a natural mobile. But then, in my left ear, a drip, drip dripping. Icicles I’d not seen hanging from the back of that same rhododendron releasing droplets onto lower leaves. I moved my right foot and heard the low crunch of iced-over snow beneath me. Crunch, crackle crackle thud-crunch; the same tone as old wood logs falling apart as the fire dies down. And then I heard the sought-after unseen. A purring. A low, slow quiet purring. I cocked my head; brought my right ear to meet my left. I leaned into the sound and turned toward it. Low, rumbling purr-purring. I opened my eyes. And there was ginger- the neighborhood fat cat- perched on the stoop of the neighbors house, half-hidden through the snow and trees. Without changing my stance, my eyes darted right to look at my dear shepherd and I realized that we were both pointing, bodies forward, hearing that same low rumble.

With my eyes and ears fully open, I experienced my garden more deeply. I smelt the cold and neighbor fireplace. Felt the heat and breeze. Heard the singing and dripping. As I moved and broke the stillness, Bryce- the shepherd- broke too. She turned to me smiling, “You heard it, Mama?”, before grabbing her ball and bouncing to my feet.


In spending these minutes in silent-noisy-stillness this morning, I remembered that I often listen, but hearing is a sense that I forget to practice. I listen to music. I listen to friends and co-workers. I listen to the mewing of the cat and talking of the dog. But, I am often distracted. I only “listen” to those things that are obvious to me; that are loud.

In my daily doing, I forget to hear the breaking dawn bird chirping. I am deaf to my quickening heartbeat- blood in throat and ears. I look for outside signs and shut myself to hearing inner questions. I do not hear G-d in their varied forms and beauties- my inner voice and their outer creations.

In the following text, Jack Reimer reflects upon listening and hearing.

The person who attends a concert
With his mind on business
Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who walks amid the songs of birds
And thinks only of what he will have for dinner
Hears—but does not really hear

The man who listens to the words of his friend,
Or his wife, or his child
And does not catch the note of urgency
Notice me, help me, care about me,
Hears—but does not really hear.

The man who listens to the news
And thinks only of how it will affect business
Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who hears the Hazzan pray
And does not feel the call to join with him
Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who listens to the rabbi’s sermon
And thinks that someone else is being addressed,
Hears—but does not really hear.

[Jack Riemer, from “Listen,” an introduction to the Sh’ma, in Likrat Shabbat (Bridgeport, CT: The Prayer Book Press, Media Judaica, 1981), p. 74]

In light of my experience with Bryce this morning, and the thoughtfulness I have engaged in over the past three weeks following the end of a relationship and the deaths of two dear people, I heard a commentary about life as I read Reimer’s words. Through the text, Reimer introduces common sounds and noises- a concert, the birds, a loved one talking, a sermon- and comments on the opportunity these instances offer us to hear. Yet, in first describing the moments of “listening” -the moments in which we take in noise but are inwardly focused on anther task or concern- Reimer suggests that we are most likely to revert to listening to the detriment of truly hearing.

The person who walks amid the songs of birds
And thinks only of what he will have for dinner
Hears—but does not really hear

By using the language “and” or “with” (e.g., “with his mind on business”), Reimer implies the normalcy of being distracted. “The person who walks amid the songs of birds” is assumed to be thinking about dinner. This is not an abnormal situation; Reimer does not use “but” nor “however”- words that might denote some irregularity or abnormality to this behavior.  Rather, the person walks among the birds, listening to the birds and yet distracted by “life”- the things they must do, like “dinner”. In doing so, however, they forsake hearing. They forsake living.

The Torah portion this week, Tetzaveh (Exodus: 27:20-30:10) describes the garments worn by the priests and high priests when in the Tabernacle, the sanctuary in the desert. Following this description, G-d recounts to Moses instructions for the inauguration for the Tabernacle and the initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.

After spending time listening and hearing this morning, I was most struck when reading Tetzaveh, and the commentary on the text, with an essay by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow: Sound and Silence. In this essay, the Rabbi considers the question, “Why was the high priest instructed to wear bells on the bottom of his tunic?” In framing this question, Rabbi Gurkow asks the reader to consider the concepts of noise, listening and hearing, life, G-d and silence. Says Gurkow,

These bells reflected the essence of life. They represented the give and take, the hustle and bustle, of movement and growth. The high priest did not live in a vacuum of spiritual seclusion. He lived in a world where ordinary people struggled to forge an extraordinary relationship with G‑d.

In this struggle, ordinary people were left wanting. Despite their efforts, they knew they could do better, and they always desired more. They found themselves on a growth curve, caught up in a momentum of upward mobility. This movement was reflected in the jingling of the high priest’s bells.

As in Reimer’s text, the Torah portion and the “jingling of the high priest’s bells” normalizes the busy distraction of human life. One might assert that the high priest’s wearing of the bells generously acknowledges and gently forgives this noise and the resultant struggle that “ordinary people”- we- experience in balancing the day-to-day distractions (e.g., the “noise” of “what’s for dinner”) with our quest of a relationship with G-d (i.e., hearing the “songs of birds”). Above all, in Judaism, we are to celebrate life. Yet, life is more than listening to noise. Life is appreciating noise, questioning noise, hearing within and beneath the noise. The high priest’s bells moving through the Tabernacle remind us that in the midst of noise is spirituality and a quest for a higher relationship with G-d; our quest for a relationship with G-d.

Rabbi Gurkow continues by noting that once a year on Yom Kippur the high priest removed his tunic and the bells. On that holiest day there was no jangling noise. He writes,

The question begs itself. Why not? Is utter silence not the mark of death? Can anything be more alive then G‑d Himself? Should not our presence before Him be marked by the sounds of life?

The answer lies in the nature of the room. This was not the priest’s room. This was G‑d’s room. In this room the high priest did not think of himself, where he was and where he would like to be. He did not think of other Jews, where they were and where they would like to be. This room was not about people. It was about G‑d. Here, mortals are silent. This is the silence not of a vacuum, but of utter selflessness. It is the silence of a surrendering ego and a complete merging with G‑d.

The removal of the bells, of the “noise”, on Yom Kippur reminds us that while the daily “noise” (the reflection of our distraction, our busy-ness) is a reflection of living while building a relationship with G-d, but that we must seek a higher relationship with G-d than what can exist while merely listening to noise. In the silence, during which we stop trying to advance (stop being distracted by what we “must do”), we transcend noise. We transcend listening. We hear G-d. We are with G-d.

And so I wonder, how can we build more silent moments in our daily lives? How can I build more silence and so deepen my relationship with G-d? The answer, I believe, lies in Reimer’s text and my morning moments. Instead of listening, I can hear. I can focus on the sound of the birds and the drip of the water. I can hear the concern in loved one’s voices. I can hear the word of G-d in the prayers I say aloud. I can attend Shabbat services and hear myself reflected in the Rabbi’s sermon. I can hear G-d within myself- in the low throb of my pulse, gurgling of my gut, and chattering of my heart. I can hear the noise and go within – to the silence inside the murmur. I can hear the silence.


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