This week’s Parshah is Bamidbar which is the Torah portion that we traditionally read on the Shabbat prior to Shavuot. Bamidbar means in the desert where Moses is taking a census, and the image of endless sand brings to mind the stillness and emptiness of that desert.  But that emptiness is not necessarily lonely, and the silence of the desert is not necessarily empty if we are listening.

Interestingly, and what may seem at first listen as a contrast, Shavuot is a holiday of great noise and celebration. We received the Torah amidst the booming of thunder and cracking of lightning and the sound of a Shofar was heard.

The sound of the Shofar grew louder, but suddenly all sound stopped, and an absolute silence followed; and then G‑d proclaimed the Ten Commandments as follows:

  1. “I am the Lord your G‑d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  2. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them.
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your G‑d in vain
  4. “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your G‑d. On it you shall not do any manner of work
  5. “Honor your father and mother
  6. “You shall not murder.
  7. “You shall not commit adultery.
  8. “You shall not steal.
  9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

There was great noise but then silence ensued. Judaism is not traditionally a quiet religion.  It is known for its words.  We teach that G-d created the world with words.  We write them, argue about tradition and points of religious law with them and pray with them, but when G-d wanted to give us the gift of Torah, there was noise to attract attention and then there was silence.  But this kind of silence was a listening silence.  This kind of silence required an action, and that action was to listen beyond our brains.  The sound of that kind of slender silence, kol demamah dakah, required that we listen to the still small voice.  Would we have missed it today?  Would we have been so busy posting on Facebook and tweeting about the big storm and the sound of the Shofar, that we would have missed the all-important silence and the opportunity to hear the voice of G-d?  Silence is an adjective but listening is a verb.  Judaism focuses on verbs.  We are challenged to act and one way is to listen.  Shema Yisrael, Hear…Listen Oh Israel!  But the only real way to listen is to engage in silence….to figuratively walk through the desert and clear your mind of thoughts of the day and not allow distraction from screens or society’s noise, or even simple words…to prevent you from listening.

So we will celebrate today. We will celebrate the gift of Torah from God, we will also celebrate the gift of our dear friend and Temple family member Erwin Coleman in honor of his 96th birthday, and we will celebrate the sound of silence.

How many of you have seen the film Field of Dreams? It is a beautiful movie about a farmer who hears a voice that instructs him to plow under his corn and build a baseball field by saying “If you build it, they will come.”  But where did Ray Kinsella, the Kevin Costner character, hear that voice.  He heard it while alone in the cornfield, he heard it late at night while sitting by the window, he heard it while driving his van.  In other words, he primarily heard the voice in the sound of silence.

So as we face our week, let’s find opportunities to listen and to let what lies just beyond our physical lives, be heard.  Whether it’s in the desert or on a mountain top, in the shower, in the car, or in your garden, we are challenged to make these moments, listening moments. And maybe one way to do that is to take regular breaks from TV and radio, and to lift our heads up and away from our phones! When we listened 3300 years ago we heard the 10 commandments. There is a lot of noise in this world. A lot, as Shakespeare said, of sound and fury signifying nothing, but there is so much wisdom, so much guidance and so much love when we actively listen to God.