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Silence
Rosh HaShanah 1 5770/2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

I had a very difficult time writing sermons this year, and I am certain that it will be reflected in their quality. I say that neither to lower your expectations, nor to curry some kind of reinforcement, but simply because it is true, and I have always tried to be truthful with you, especially on these days.

It is not that I don't know what I want to share with you I have known that for months already. Allow me to deliver it in one brief paragraph.

In the prayer un'taneh tokef we are presented with two conflicting images juxtaposed: uvashofar gadol yitaka, v'kol d'mama daka yishama, "The great shofar will be sounded, and the still small voice will be heard." The essence of these High Holy Days is whether we have used these very opportunities as we should to make a great noise and to be very quiet. Because today is Shabbat in addition to Rosh HaShanah, I want to explore being quiet. And tomorrow I want to explore making noise.

If you need a nap, if you have to check on the kids, if you are hungry, you can now check out and rest assured that you have heard the essence of what I want to say. Make noise, be quiet. Be quiet, make noise. From the time we were babies there have been times to make noise and times to be quiet, and if you know the difference between them, you can live a successful life.

My friend David Blumenstein is my local expert in silence. He rightfully reminds me, whenever I ask, that there are different kinds of silence. There is the kind of silence you experience when you are the first person out the door on the morning of a heavy snowfall. There is a different kind of silence you experience after someone has finished chewing you out. There is yet another kind of silence you experience in meditative practice. And there is a palette of silences you hear during the course of services on these holidays on either side of a shofar blast, as you reflect on the contents of the Amidah, in the moment your soul is satisfied as our Hazzan concludes her chanting.

Look, I am a rabbi, and so I try to see God wherever I can. And I must admit, that for all the talking we do as Jews, and that's a lot of talking, the place I am most likely to find God is in the profundity of silence. It isn't like I made that up, by the way. The very phrase that prompts me to address this topic today kol d'mama daka, the still small voice occurs in the life of the Prophet Elijah, in a section of the book of Kings that we read at almost the opposite end of the year. Elijah, whose flamboyant challenges to the pagan priests of his day earned the ire of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, was a guy who knew how to make noise. But when he fled from the royal family and hid out in the desert, God called to him and passed before him. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks" a cyclone or tornado "but God was not in the wind." There was an earthquake that shook and spit the very earth "but God was not in the earthquake." There was a fire, crackling and burning and consuming everything before it "but God was not in the fire." And then, kol d'mama daka, the still small voice, something in the quality of silence that followed great noise. And that is when Elijah knew he had found God.

We are so often uncomfortable with silence. We try to fill it as best we can. I received my first iPod as a gift this summer, and I now understand the attraction of plugging your ears and entering a world of music or learning or entertainment. But as much as it blocks out the noise of traffic or Metro, it also eliminates those moments of deep quiet. The irony struck me as I listened, on a still summer night as silent raindrops fell, to Simon and Garfunkel sing "Sounds of Silence" and missed, as it happened, the eloquence of a still summer night.

So I want to invite you into some silence today, a day and a place that is a respite from cell phones and Blackberries and the guy driving the car in the next lane with the volume on the bass turned all the way up. The silence may be broken externally we don't know who will drive by, or what wonderful child may offer an exclamation but you can preserve it within.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote these words:

Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Shhh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, quietly, listen to the still small voice.

(silence)

"Love the questions like locked rooms." The unresolved corners of our hearts are not unfamiliar to us. They are the places we have stored memories we try not to remember. We close them in closets, in storage rooms, in warehouses that we keep locked until we furtively crack the door to push another memory in. The questions we consider in silence beckon us to those rooms.

Have you ever discovered a long-forgotten trove from the past? Faded photographs, old school papers, a journal or diary from a different time of life, your favorite tee-shirt from long ago? You have lived along into the answer to questions you might have neglected to ask had the remembrance not prompted them again.

Here is a question to caress in silence. Love the question, do not force the answer. Let the question answer itself. Shh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, listen to the still small voice. What are you thankful for?

(silence)

Here is a question to embrace in silence. Love the question, do not force the answer. Let the question answer itself. Shh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, listen to the still small voice. What prevents you from saying what you want to a loved one?

(silence)

Here is a question to hold close in silence. Love the question, do not force the answer. Let the question answer itself. Shh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, listen to the still small voice. What are you addicted to?

(silence)

"Love the questions like books that are written in a foreign tongue." Rilke's image is immediately familiar to almost everyone in this room. Even those of us who know Hebrew remain mystified by the mixture of ancient and modern, and those of us who do not speak Hebrew simply remain mystified. Why do we continue to pick up these books, so many of us today, some percentage of us on Shabbat, some fraction of us on a weekday evening or morn?

We know that the prayer book and the Bible contain questions that are encoded in our souls. The collective memories of our people, scattered over centuries and continents, have been rehearsed over these mysterious letters. The skilled have recited them, the educated have interpreted them, the curious have stared into them, believing against all evidence that the questions they address will allow us to live along some distant day into the answer.

Here is a question to engage in silence. Love the question, do not force the answer. Let the question answer itself. Shh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, listen to the still small voice. Are we born good or bad?

(silence)

Here is a question to contend with in silence. Love the question, do not force the answer. Let the question answer itself. Shh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, listen to the still small voice. What should we sacrifice to change the world?

(silence)

Here is a question to struggle with in silence. Love the question, do not force the answer. Let the question answer itself. Shh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, listen to the still small voice. Would you die for a cause?

(silence)

Memories, remembrances, zikhronot. The quiet, the silence, the still small voice is the place in which we find a presence of God. What is the voice we hear in silence? It is the whisper of what once was that will never be forgotten. In a few minutes, we will spend quiet moments on the Amidah, and in the midst of the section unique to this day we will read ten verses from throughout the Torah that celebrate God in remembrances. God remembered Noah aboard the ark, God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God made the wonders of the world for remembering, God remembered the love we have shown and the love that God feels. In that silent recall is our history. In that silent recall is our legacy. In that silent recall is our relationship.

What is true for us as a people is true for us as individuals as well. In spite of our personal hoards of recordings and computer files, we know the plain fact that what is past is silent. The people we loved, the experiences we cherished, come back to life only in the quietest aspects of our rich internal landscapes. It is in this respect that we access the God in whose image we were created. When we remember, we give life to the dead. And while we are not blessed with the depth and breadth of memory that is the nature of the Holy One of Blessed Name, in the still small voice that we hear in those silent moments we become a part of something larger. In those moments of silence in which we perceive the still small voice, we gain an appreciation of how we arrived where we are.

Some of you who are practitioners of meditation have learned to value the silence of the moment. Quietude need not be the culmination or combination of anything; it can be it should be! the opportunity to be completely present in the moment, unencumbered by yesterday or tomorrow. A person need not indulge in remembering to find Godliness in silence, but a person cannot remember without finding Godliness in silence. And when we open ourselves to being completely present in the moment, we have there, too, a sense of the eternal presence of God.

There are two other sets of verses in the Amidah, those verses that recall the sounds of the shofar, and those that recall God's sovereignty. Tomorrow, I want to talk with you about the shofarot verses. But for just a few minutes now I want to place the malkhuyot verses in a little context.

It is not just in these ten verses that we address God as King. It is probably the most recurring image in today's service, and one we cannot avoid every time we say a brakhah eloheinu melekh ha'olam, our God, King of the universe. Of all the ideas in our prayers, the hardest idea of all is one of the most common -- God as King. At least part of the reason is the influence of the United States of America on the world in which we live. The US was founded on the principle of overthrowing the divine right of kings. Americans live in an anti-king country and America spreads its anti-monarchy attitude throughout the world. The only kings Americans know are cartoons, music icons and dogs. In liberating its citizenry from the notion of a sovereign human being the United States offered no substitute.

After all, what is the replacement symbol for absolute power, with the ability to be beneficent or malicious? Dictators are presumed to be evil. Presidents and prime ministers are deposed by elections or unpopular decisions. No other word -- captain, manager, director, general, commander -- conveys the virtually limitless power that kings and queens wielded for thousands of years of human history. The mighty Roman Caesar, who was translated into Kaiser and Czar, has been reduced to a salad.

What can replace in our minds this notion of limitless authority to command and discharge? Like most of our notions of the spiritual, we have to look within. What aspect of a sovereign God exists within our heart, within our soul, within our might to enable us to connect with the Holy One of Blessed Name? What mirror can we hold to the sovereign self that will reflect back to us less of the self and more of the Sovereign?

My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula helped me think about this question. He said, "Jack, don't be so hung up on the word. What is it about the idea of `king' that spoke to our ancestors and that speaks to us? Deconstruct the notion of king, and you can reconstruct it again."

So I thought about it a lot, and it completely derailed my ability to write the sermon I set out to write. But I came up with the three things we look for in a king, even those of us, like you and me, who no longer want a king of any kind. And I share two of them today. One of them is authority. We want authority. We want someone with the capacity to make decisions large and small and the credibility to enforce them.

Think about whom that is in your life. For part of your life, it is a parent. For some part of your day it is a teacher, a boss, a supervisor. In some circumstances it is a doctor, a judge, a ranking officer or a coach. But in the end, the truth is clear, and clearer today in a world without kings than it ever was before.

The authority is you. The free will we have been given is another gift from God. Every decision in our lives is an exercise of free will. We have the choice every day, every moment to do the right and the good or to do the self-serving. They are not always mutually exclusive, but they are not by any stretch of the imagination always the same. The only question is, are we accepting our conscious responsibility for it?

There must be a direction in which we can turn for guidance. And, indeed, that direction is inward. In the remembrances of the people we loved and in the remembrances of the experiences we have had, that is to say in our histories and in the lessons of our histories are the keys to understanding. In our collective history and in the lessons of our collective history of which God is Guardian and Protector are the keys to our understanding.

Because the second thing we look for in a king is someone who preserves and represents our legacy. The king represents the permanence of our presence in this world. The king remembers and reminds.

A thousand years ago, when kings were common and the imagery of the prayer book resonated in a tangible way, a poet composed a liturgical song that anticipated this circumstance. Un'taneh tokef holds the key to discovering the bridge between authority and legacy, between kingship and remembrance, between malkhuyot and zikhronot. The poet plucked three words from the raucous and garrulous prophet Elijah kol d'mama daka, still small voice and added one word of advice: listen. Be still. Be small. Be quiet. Live the questions now, let them answer themselves.

Is there more to it than that? Of course. The shofar is also quiet today, but will sound with a great voice tomorrow, and that will be time enough to consider it. But for right now, for today, for Shabbat Rosh Hashanah, to find the king in your life, Shhh. Take a breath. Let it out. Silently, quietly, listen to the still small voice.


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