Sound Of Silence
level, although we wish to reach the
point where what we say and what we
do reach a perfect consonance, we are
far from such a height. It remains im-
portant that we remember the distance.
In that way, we will lament that our in-
tentions outstrip our self-knowledge,
and that our vows promise what we do
When we chant the Kol Nidre prayer,
we are confessing, first and foremost,
our distance from the Divine. Our
shortcomings are manifest We change.
We vacillate. We cannot always trust
our words. Having established that, we
proceed to the even more difficult task
of examining our deeds.
The remainder of the Yom Kippur
service is a masterful interplay of words
human and Divine. We quote biblical
texts that exhort us to forgive and
promise redemption. At the same time,
we confess to our own shortcomings,
giving the shape of language to our mis-
deeds. Over and over, we repeat a litany
of sins, the repetition digging deeper
into our souls each time and, progres-
sively, uncovering the reality of our fail-
Yet the list of sins to which the con-
gregation confesses clearly contains
misdeeds not committed by most of the
congregation. Why should a worshiper
stand before God and ask for forgive-
ness for transgressions that he or she
The first answer is that this acts as a
shield for those who need to confess.
When all the congregation lift up their
voices and say, "We have sinned by..."
no one knows who is truly confessing
to the misdeed.
Nonetheless there is another, deep-
er reason. We tend to split ourselves off
from those who commit terrible
crimes. Sometimes this protects us,
sometimes it simply serves as an ex-
cuse. We turn criminals into monsters
and, therefore, we need not share the
sense that they, too, are people. Yet it
is precisely the violation of what we
share that is so horrible.
Judaism teaches that those who com-
mit terrible deeds are not monsters.
They are human beings who have done
monstrous things. They are human,
and responsible because they have be-
trayed their humanness.
We share humanity. It would be pos-
sible for us to commit those same ter-
rible crimes in certain situations if we
allowed ourselves to do it. By confess-
ing to sins we have not committed, we
admit that such deeds are possible for
us. We do not separate ourselves. We
recognize the demonic potential that
exists in the most placid breast.
We speak words to understand our-
selves, sometimes the deepest pieces
of ourselves. In the simple transition
from "I" to "we" in the confessional, a
world of insight is opened. The words
of confession carry tremendous
weights of meaning. We confess be-
cause confession sears the soul, it
opens and exposes us.
Words sandblast the self. They reach
toward truth, make their way inside us.
Much of what we have said about
words in Judaism is directed toward
the end of discovering the nature of
the human relationship not only with
God and with others, but also with one-
self. What are we truly like, what is in-
side of us? To strip away the facades of
self is the work of a lifetime.
The great Chasidic Rabbi of Kotzk,
renowned for his human insight and
raw honesty, once shouted at his dis-
ciples: "Masks! Where are your faces?"
Through words, words angry or de-
spairing, he sought to pierce the pre-
tenses of his students cowering behind
their masks. We might decide that ul-
timately the great Rabbi of Kotzk failed,
because toward the end of his life he
lapsed into a silence that lasted for
many years. Yet we remember many
of his words, so perhaps his words
were more penetrating than his silence.
We pray in
is to learn
`Silence Is Deafening'
ix years ago, David Wolpe began to appreciate the
depths of silence and the limits of words. At the age
of 53, Rabbi Wolpe's mother had a stroke. For months
afterward, she could barely speak. Words, sentences, phras-
es, syntax were garbled, tortured, nonsensical. A once ar-
ticulate woman could barely convey the simplest thought;
a fan* that had relied on words and ideas abruptly learned
that the utility of speech can be woefully circumscribed.
The rabbi's mother has yet to regain all of her ability
to speak. But her son's frustrations at her frustrations to
speak coherently helped him understand, as he writes in
his new book, In Speech and in Silence, that while we
might be "wizards of the word, ...after we exhaust our-
selves in words, the silence abides, waiting for us to dis-
cover it, to return to it, to hear a message momentarily lost
amid the sounds of our own language."
Mr. Wolpe's book addresses the complementary role
that words and silence have in prayer. In a telephone in-
terview from Los Angeles where he is a lecturer in Jewish
thought and director of the Ostrow library at the Uni-
versity of Judaism, he lamented that "people don't believe
that words are as powerful as Jewish tradition suggests.
When they pray, they say, I'm just saying words, as though
lust' is an appropriate thing to say about reciting words."
Silence, he said, is often avoided during prayer services
"because it demands a confrontation. Really confronting
what silence allows you to do in terms of exploring your-
self can be very powerful."
Words have lost much of their potency in prayer, he said,
because Americans are inundated with words from the me-
dia, because "people are so focused on Judaism being a tra-
dition of action that they lose the sense that it is also a tradition
of language, and because "we are uncomfortable with En-
glish as a religious language."
And Hebrew, he
said, "serves for
many Jews more as
a mantra than as a
language of ex-
The power of si-
lence and speech in
prayer can be en-
hanced, he said, by
each of us "becom-
ing an ear as well as
a mouth. What in-
terferes for me with
prayer is thinking
about so many oth-
er things that I can't
listen to myself and David Wolpe
to the words. What's
needed is allowing yourself not just to give forth, but to re-
ceive the message of the prayer."
And which, for the 34-year-old rabbi, is "louder" — silence
"After the experience with my mother," he said, "there
is no question that silence is, especially on the phone. Ijust
sit there and there's this quiet I know that she's struggling
and I wait for some sound to emerge. It's absolutely deaf-
— Arthur J. Magida