Eloquent Silence

“Shimon, the son of Gamaliel, says, ‘All my days I have grown up  in the midst of the sages [or wise men] and I have not found anything that is good for a person except silence” (Avot 1:16[17])

Shimon actually goes on to say that “anyone who multiplies words brings on sin.”  I do find it slightly ironic (and quite funny to boot) that the son of the very famous Rabban Gamaliel (who, incidentally, may have been the teacher of the Apostle Paul) has such seemingly negative things to say about talking.  I wonder if he ever brought this up in conversation with all those sages or if he just sat apart from the circle wishing they would let him go hang out with his friends.

Poor attempts at humor aside, there is something very valuable and timely in Shimon’s statement.  Silence is something of a scarcity in today’s western culture.  For the majority of most of our lives we are within easy earshot of traffic of some sort.  There is construction noise in our perennially-renovated cities.  Airplanes fly overhead, dogs bark, phones ring (and sing and chime and beep, etc.), and––the absolute top on my list of worst noises ever––car alarms blare the fact that a squirrel has just scampered across the hood.  To drown all this out we turn on music, watch TV, put in headphones and just generally surround ourselves with other noise.  In fact, there is a whole industry for “white noise” that is an attempt to surround oneself with sound that is less jarring and offensive than the noise of the world around us.  We are inundated by noise.

If you are anything like me, this noise is very distracting.  (I am definitely one of the multitude in the library with earphones in trying to alleviate the aural chaos with some controlled musical input of my own.)  One side effect of all the noise, is that the physical assault on our eardrums carries with it a sort of social noise as well.  We are flooded by our “entertainment” media with news of pop stars and celebrities, the latest gadgets, new trends in fashion, and a million other things that promise to make us the person that they tell us we want to be.  As I noted in a previous post, the messages received here can cause us to become dissatisfied with our lives as they are; indeed, many of the messages are designed to do just that.

In this culture of noise, the words of Shimon ben Gamaliel are a clarion call for something different. [1]  It is good for a person to have silence: silence from our noises and silence from the messages our noises bring.  This gives us a space to separate ourselves from the compulsions of our society, if only for a moment, to reflect, to pray and to reconnect with our creator.  When God spoke to Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:9-18), there was great and strong wind, an earthquake and fire (large, noise producing events), and what does it say? “The Lord was not in the wind”––a fact stated again with respect to the earthquake and fire.  Instead, God spoke to Elijah in the subsequent silence.  Perhaps we ought to find some silence of our own, going to a “wilderness” (where the consuming noise of our society cannot fill our senses) thus making space for another voice entirely.

Ben Edsall
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[1]  I should probably note that this post is a free reflection on the value of silence rather than an exegesis of Shimon ben Gamaliel’s saying.  Avot 1:16[17] is more concerned to emphasize the value of performance of the commandments than to advocate silence in the midst of this modern and aurally inundated society: “Study [of the commandments] is not the root but rather doing them.”

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3 responses to “Eloquent Silence

  1. I like the way you think, Ben.

    Camping used to be a good way to find some peace and quiet, but it seems every time I go now, someone in the next campsite is blasting their radio. Sigh. Can’t we just sit a moment in “silence” (well…nature makes its own noise, you know) and let that be enough?

  2. Hi Val, thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

    I definitely share your experience (and frustration) at campsites…which is a good argument for backpacking in my book. One of the the odd things about silence is that it takes practice. I think many people simply aren’t comfortable enough with starkness of silence. It strips away the distractions we create to hide from ourselves, from God, and from the important questions of life (like what the point of this whole thing really is and how we fit into it). There is a reason that Christians throughout history have treated silence as a spiritual discipline.

  3. Like summer evenings on the front porch out on the ranch. All one can hear are the birds and a fly’s buzzing. A lot of good thinking has taken place on that porch.

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