When All Went Silent
Covid, Shavuot and how to hear the voice of God.
As the holiday of Shavuot approaches and we prepare for receiving the Torah, it is important to remember that the Torah is not something we simply received thousands of years ago; it is something we are meant to re-experience each year, if not each day. How so?
3333 years ago we stood at the foot of Sinai and received the Torah. Perhaps we each have our own image of what that might have been like, but there is a fascinating midrash that fleshes out some of the details of the experience at Mount Sinai. After the year we’ve been through, I find this medrash even more potent, relatable, and instructive.
Rabbi Abbahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When God gave the Torah, no bird was chirping, no fowl was flying, no cow mooed, the sea did not roar, and in fact, no creature uttered a sound. Even in the spiritual world, no angels flapped a wing, nor did they chant any praise of God. Rather, throughout the entire world there was only a deafening silence as the Divine Voice went forth speaking, “I am the Lord your God."
Nice description of the scene! It’s as if everything simply froze in place while God made His grand appearance with a booming voice. God’s voice was so powerful that it shook the earth and caused every creation to stop dead in their tracks.
However, an accurate reading of the midrash reveals that that is not what happened. It does not say that God’s voice thundered throughout the world, and as a result, naturally everyone froze in their tracks…
Rather, everything first went quiet, creating a deafening silence, the sound of absolutely nothing, not even a wave in the distance or a flap of a wing, and only then could the Divine Voice be heard.
The silence came first. Everything came to a grinding halt – all movement, all interactions. And only then was the voice of God heard.
The voice of God is not a booming voice. God’s voice is described as a kol demama daka, a very quiet, faint voice, a voice that you can only hear if you quiet everything around you, including all of the noise inside of you. Our sages teach us that God's still, small voice has never stopped calling; our lives and the world just often get too noisy to hear it.
The midrash is sharing with us a tremendous strategy, a secret. You want to hear God speak to you? Don’t look for those big signs outside, but quiet the noise and you will hear Him calling you from inside. If you want to connect to the frequency of God, turn off all of the noise and distraction that is taking up all of your bandwidth.
As we enter Shavuot, this midrash is a hint to a powerful reality we can tap into this year more than ever.
With this year's pandemic, all of the external noise around us was quieted. The running around and the clatter of day-to-day life was muted significantly, if not nearly completely. Things that used to occupy our time, our minds, our schedules, were cleared.
As a result of this quiet, many people I have spoken to have shared how they found greater clarity. I too, often found myself hearing faint, yet clear voices and thoughts that challenged me to rethink my priorities, to clarify my values, and more importantly to see if my life was actually reflecting those values in the years lived. These quiet voices are incredibly important.
Rather than look at this past year as a “write off”, we should see it as an opportunity to take steps to get the years ahead “right on” track again, using our inner silence and clarity to receive and integrate more of our values into our lives.
Shavuot is not about our ancestors receiving the Torah millennia ago; it is about us realizing that the Torah is what has carried our people for millennia, as each generation and person reaccepted it throughout history.
This year, it is our turn to do so!