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Torah with Morrie: The Value of Silence

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

What comfort do we find in all the noise?

On a recent flight, my eyes caught a book that a fellow passenger was reading. The short blurb on the cover intrigued me: "An old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson." Right then and there, I made a mental note to make Mitch Albom's bestselling "Tuesdays with Morrie" my next book. Little did I know what a major decision that turned out to be.

For those who haven't read it, "Tuesdays with Morrie" is the true story of how a past student, Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom, of a dying Brandeis University professor, Morrie Schwartz, meet up again shortly after Morrie is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal illness of the neurological system. Morrie was Mitch's favorite teacher in college because Morrie was so unconventional, reflective and insightful in all areas of human relations -- sociology, philosophy, and psychology. Mitch decides that although he hasn't spoken to his favorite professor since graduation, he needs to go see him to say goodbye. Mitch's goodbye turns out to be a series of consecutive Tuesdays spanning many months.

"The last class of my old professor's life took place once a week in his house," Mitch writes, ".the class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was: The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience. No grades were given but there were oral exams each week. You were expected to respond to questions and you were expected to pose questions of your own. You were also expected to perform physical tasks now and then such as lifting the professor's head to a comfortable spot on the pillow or placing his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Kissing him goodbye earned you extra credit. No books were required, yet many topics were covered, including love, work, community, family, aging, forgiveness, and finally, death. The last lecture was brief, only a few words. A funeral was held in lieu of graduation. . . . The last class in my old professor's life had only one student. I was the student."

The book touches on a number of profound themes, and I'd like to share my thoughts on one of them: the value of silence.

Mitch describes a college experience with Morrie:

"He enters the classroom, sits down, doesn't say anything. He looks at us, we look at him. At first, there are a few giggles, but Morrie only shrugs, and eventually a deep silence falls and we begin noticing the smallest sounds, the radiator humming in the corner of the room, the nasal breathing of one of the students. Some of us are agitated. When is he going to say something? We squirm, check our watches. A few students look out the window, trying to be above it all. This goes on for a good fifteen minutes, before Morrie breaks in with a whisper. 'What's happening here?' he asks. And slowly a discussion begin -- as Morrie has wanted all along -- about the effect of silence on human relations. Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?"

Noise lets us ignore our most difficult struggle and our most precious possession: our true and profound selves.

The question got me thinking. Noise lets us ignore our most difficult struggle and our most precious possession: our true and profound selves. Very often, it is painful to face one's true inner core. It is hard to be absolutely honest with oneself. Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day," but we often fail in this regard. We fool ourselves, and the noise and distractions of life help us in this effort. Constant external stimuli and occurrences allow us to avoid dealing with our inner being.

When we're alone in the car, do we immediately reach for the radio? Is it any wonder that talk radio is such a booming international business? We are so afraid of silence, so fearful of the opportunity to be with ourselves and penetrate our inner world.

"The vehicle for wisdom is silence" (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:13), as King Solomon tells us, "'Closing one's lips makes a person wise" (Proverbs 10:19).

Genuine spiritual heights can only be attained through introspection which only comes by dint of the medium of silence.

Thus Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel says, "All my days I grew up among the wise men, and I have found nothing greater (for the body) than silence" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17).

How is silence good for the body? Why not say that silence is good for the soul or for a person in general?

The Maharal, a 16th century mystical commentator, explains that man is comprised of body and soul (Guf and Neshama), the physical element and the spiritual. Everything man does has its basis in one of these two dimensions. When one dimension is active, the other one is passive. Maharal explains that speech derives from the physical facet of man. When we speak, our physical aspect is controlling us. Silence allows our spiritual dimension to regain control. Since the spiritual mode of man is silence, quiet allows the spiritual to lead the physical, while speaking gives the physical the leading role. The best thing for the body is when it is guided by the soul. Thus, there is nothing better for the body than silence.

Why is speech derived from the physical facet of man? How is silence the mode for the soul? Silence allows us to remove all of the external and physical distractions in our lives and lets us focus upon the essence of our being, the soul.

The next time we're alone in the car, let's resist the urge to put on the radio. Instead, let's take advantage of the quiet time and think deeply about our lives.

We could ask ourselves questions like:

  • What are my goals in life? Am I on the path to fulfilling them?
  • Am I trying to improve my character? Do I have a plan for improvement?
  • Am I a better person today than I was yesterday?
  • Do I feel connected to God? What have I done today to connect myself to God?

Setting specific times to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts will help us probe our inner world. It is at these times that we pierce our deeper selves and grow in immense ways.

This is first in a series of "Torah with Morrie."

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