At our Shabbat dinner table our four year old daughter sang a song that she had learned at school about not speaking loshon hora (speaking negatively about someone whether true or false). The topic of right speech helps us transition to our next trait (middah) of silence (shtika – שתיקה). We look over the next two weeks at what our sources say about silence, and hopefully, experiment in pushing the boundaries of our personal development.
In Pirkei Avot (1:17), Shimon the son of Rabbi Gamliel says “All the days that I grew up among the wise, I didn’t find anything better for oneself than silence”.
Judaism is not known for its promotion of silence - a visit to a Yeshiva or the back row of many shuls confirms that - so we will attempt to explore what shtika is and next week look to other terms for silence to help deepen the work we are doing.
To understand what Shimon means when he claims that silence is the best thing, we need to see the complete mishna, which continues, “not study, but practice is the main thing, and one who talks excessively brings on sin”. The mishna then has three pieces to its teaching. Firstly, that silence is important. Secondly, action should follow silence, and thirdly, too much talk is not good. To understand these three parts a little better we look at how Rabbi Lefin of Satanov, the author of the Mussar text Cheshbon HaNefesh, summarizes silence. He says “before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: ‘What benefit will my speech bring me or others?’” Rabbi Lefin is teaching us that silence is a useful tool to give us space to reflect on saying only beneficial things. How often do we jump in with unbridled enthusiasm when someone asks us something and then we find ourselves struggling with lots of ums and ahs to complete our thought. Or worse, we try to take back what we wish we hadn’t said. In either case, the benefit of our words becomes clouded. Both Rabbi Lefin and the mishna are telling us to organize our process to allow thought to develop in the framework of quiet and then to speak carefully and briefly before converting thought to action. Rabbi Lefin concludes that care at each stage will usually bring a benefit.
Let’s look to two instances where action follows silence and see if the results resonate with how we want to live our own lives. The first example is that of Creation, where there was nothing (in fact there was less than nothing) to begin. Then, having formulated a blue print, G-d spoke and the world was formed – G-d's process then evolved from silence to thought to word and finally action.
In our second example, water constantly springs forth from the desert as Miriam our prophetess helps quench the thirst of the Israelites through their forty year travels. However, in her desire for recognition, she fails in maintaining the honour due to her leader and brother, Moses, and speaks loshon hora for which she is punished with leprosy. The Hebrew for speak is m’daber (מדבר) and the word for desert is midbar (מדבר). The connection is strong, that from the vastness of silence (the desert) it is acceptable and expected that speech will spring forth. However, there needs to be enough time given to silence to allow the right words to be formulated. Perhaps Miriam didn’t allow enough time for silence before speaking and so her message was ill-conceived. It could also be said, that in a quiet desert one's voice is more pronounced than in a noisy environment. Perhaps then we also learn that right speech must be considered in the context of one's environment.
It’s true in my case that I don’t allow enough time in my day to sit silently before I speak. Also, when surrounded by people who are using improper speech, I feel more tempted to jump in and fit in. However, we are obliged to work with the process, since perfecting it will help steer us clear of sin – as the mishna (Pirkei Avot 1:17) concludes.
Practice: Select one conversation each day this week. Before you speak to another person, be silent and ask yourself “what benefit do I think my speech will bring me or others”. Then, after the conversation, write in your journal how it went. Did your premeditated silence result in more benefit than if you’d simply leapt into the conversation or did it hinder the conversation. To give yourself more time to plan, it may be easiest to choose a telephone call that you initiate, or some other time when you can control your initial time for silence.
Question: Romanian philosopher Emile Cioran said “A sudden silence in the middle of a conversation brings us back to essentials: it reveals how dearly we must pay for the invention of speech. Does the introduction of silence in your process increase or decrease the perceived value of your speech?