As I write to you this week, I just finished reading a very disturbing blog post about a Jewish woman of color’s experience at the most recent URJ Biennial held here in Chicago. She shared that throughout the event she was the target of countless racist comments. I was stunned to read this. I was not able to attend the Biennial as it conflicted with my daughter, Anna, receiving her degree in Urban Planning. Apparently, this same person wrote about her experience on Facebook and was bombarded with well-intentioned folks who expressed the outrage on her behalf. I am not on Facebook, so I was completely blindsided by her report to our Central Conference of American Rabbis membership.
But, what truly captured my attention in the beautiful and painful blog post was that in all of the responses, no one asked her if she was ok. People, well-meaning in what they believed to be well-intentioned expressions of support, left her feeling empty and alone. My read…no one paused to take a breath and truly listen. I believe that if well-meaning people had really listened, they would have, I would have, asked her if she was ok.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read about the giving and receiving of the Torah. Most notable in the parasha is the shared experience of the Israelites encountering God and receiving the Ten Commandments. The rabbis of our tradition have a lot to say about what actually happened at Mt. Sinai. Our sages marveled at the miraculous nature of this revelation of God to our ancestors.
One line of interpretation questions what our ancestors actually heard. Did they really hear all Ten Utterances? Wouldn’t that exposure to God’s presence overwhelm them to the point of death? So maybe they only heard part…the first two utterances, suggested one sage. Perhaps they only heard the first verse, chimed in another. But maybe it was just the first word they were able to withstand, Anochi (I am), added a third sage. Finally, one rabbi declared that they could only hear the first letter, the Aleph of Anochi.
But the Aleph has no sound. It is a silent letter and can only take on the voice of an accompanying vowel. This is the lesson, their encounter with God was in the silence. In that moment without any sound, without any spoken word, God was revealed.
This is our lesson, this was my lesson from that Blog Post: When we make space for the other with silence, when we are not thinking of a response, it is in that silence that we can truly hear. Relationships are deepened through listening to others, focusing on their thoughts and feelings, not just in what they are saying with their words, but what is communicated in the silence.
May this Shabbat find us paying closer attention to the silence between the words encountering one another as our ancestors encountered God in the moment of revelation at Mt. Sinai. May we be as profoundly transformed as they were some 3500 years ago.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.