The Uniqueness of Listening in Silence | Parashat Ki Tavo

Rabbi James Bennett, Congregation Shaare Emeth, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

From the moment I awaken, I emerge from silence into sound.  I am inundated by sound. We all are. The noise of our alarms, the whir of the fan in our air conditioner or heater, the buzz of the electricity in our lights, the water flowing through our plumbing systems, the pitter patter of rain, or acorns, or squirrels scurrying across the roof. The sound of a loved one, breathing quietly beside us, the sound of the television, or music, or someone walking on the floor above us, or slamming a door, or shouting, the sound of a horn honking, a siren blaring, the wind blowing through the trees, an airplane crossing the sky far above, or in the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, the “sounds of silence.”

It takes great effort, though, to listen to the silence between the noise.  Most of us want to fill the emptiness with our own voices, or those of others.  While we long for a return to the blessed silence of sleep, we often are drawn into the world of sound.  We immediately drown out the silence with noise, and in doing so, we may discover that we cannot hear anything at all.

Our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, arrives with a series of raucous sounds as well, like a day of awakening.  Moses booms out his command to his people, reminding us that they must be filled with a profound gratitude as they arrive in their new land in the days to come. Moses literally scripts the words they must recite, offering them the words they must say to express their appreciation for freedom, and to assure the well-being of the most vulnerable in their midst.

The Torah literally cries out the words of blessing and curses that the Israelites should remember as the reward and punishment for obedience and disobedience to the law of God.

But in the midst of the cacophony there is a moment of deafening silence: “Moses and the priests, the Levites, spoke to all of Israel saying, “BE SILENT and hear, O Israel, today you shall become a people of the Eternal your God. And if you listen to the voice of the Eternal your God, then you will do God’s commandments and laws that I shall command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10).

The word הַסְכֵּת (hahsket) that appears in verse 9, translated as “be silent” or “listen” or “shut up” in various texts. It is a difficult word to translate accurately because it appears no place else in the Torah except here. The text calls out to us, ironically, to pay unique attention to this unique idea:  To hear the truth of God’s word, we need to listen to the silence.  Be silent and then, and only then, will you hear God’s commandments and become God’s people.

Only through silence can we truly become one. Being at one requires of us only to shut up. Atonement begins with listening.

In “The Lost Art of Listening” author Michael Nichols teaches that ““The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person.”

In other words, we cannot listen and talk at the same time. This is, for some of us, a difficult lesson to learn. The instinct to which many of us gravitate is to listen halfway and simultaneously be formulating our response, waiting to pounce upon the silence when the other speaker pauses, takes a breath, or finishes a thought and then fill that silence with our own insights and profound ideas. Yet that is precisely the point that Moses makes, subtly, in the middle of our Torah portion.  If you are preparing your own response, then you are not open to what the other is saying.  It is impossible.  Instead, you must listen, totally and completely.  God will not abide by our inability to hear, totally and completely, the point of the commandment.

These days, perhaps more than ever, we must learn to practice this sacred art of listening in silence. We are inundated by role models who do the opposite.  Our politicians bombard us with bluster, the talking heads of the media talk endlessly and incessantly, even interrupting one another as a part of their art, and we model our uncivil dialogue after theirs.

We can do better.  We must do better.  “Shut up and listen,” Moses exhorts us.  Then, and only then we will find blessing.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).