The Sound and Silence of Torah

Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: `When God gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox made a sound, angels did not fly, Seraphim did not say “Kadosh,” the sea did not stir, no creature spoke. The world was utterly silent–and a voice was heard: “I am the Lord your God.”
        Midrash Shemot Rabbah, 29

A season is set for everything…under heaven:

A time for silence and a time for speaking.
                            Kohelet 3:1, 7

Reading and interpreting Torah, my teacher Rabbi David Aaron has said, is perhaps the only thing about Jewish community that remains constant across time and space. Think about it: What do we twenty-first-century Reform Jews have in common with Jews in Babylonia 500 years before the Common Era, or with Jews in Jerusalem while the second Temple stood, or with Jews in eleventh-century Europe, or twelfth-century North Africa, or with Ultra-Orthodox Jews today? And they with each other?

We may not speak or dress or eat or pray or think the same way. We may not raise our children or give tzedakah or celebrate or mourn the same way. We have different priorities and different ethics and different theologies from Jews of different lands and distant eras, not to mention the Jews who may be living down the street or a few states over from us, today. By what right do we all call ourselves Jews? By what measure do we feel any sense of community or continuity with other Jews?

We even read and interpret the Torah in vastly different ways. But there’s the thing: we all study Torah. In every part of the Jewish people, we return to it, again and again, seeking truth.

Now, I know we don’t every single one of us individually study Torah. Some of us are profoundly ignorant of Torah. Some Jews actively repudiate much of what’s in the Torah. And yet, if we were to ask any Jew in the world what makes her or him feel most Jewish—whether the answer is love of Israel or honoring parents or lighting Shabbat candles or speaking Hebrew or Yiddish or Ladino, or feeding the hungry or eating bagels with lox—it all leads back, in part if not in whole, to Torah. Consciously or not, just about everything we do as Jews is informed—or was once, thanks to some teacher, beloved or forgotten, some ancestor or ancestor’s teacher—by Torah.

You may be be thinking this over now, trying to imagine what I mean, or looking for a point to argue. After all, we’re Jews. We find the values of analysis and argument in the Torah, too. Perhaps we can set up some time to actually have this conversation, perhaps even in honor of Shavuot this month, but here and now my point is simply this: Shavuot, the anniversary of God’s revelation to Israel at Sinai, God’s supreme gift of Torah, is coming.

Beginning this year on the evening of May 14th, the 6th of Sivan every year in the Hebrew calendar—Shavuot—we celebrate Torah, the source of our wisdom and strength and sometimes our folly, our link to God and each other, our past, present and future.

How does Torah provide all this? Through speech and through silence. In the words that pile up week after week, crowded columns tumbling across scrolls of parchment, words we read and chant and discuss; and also through silence. The gaps in the narrative, where names or years or thoughts don’t appear. The stories of silence, when one or many of our protagonists fall speechless before the sanctity, pain, joy, or plain mystery of life in this world. Our own silence, as we listen to generations of readers and teachers before us unfurl and embellish all those words.

Shavuot is not the raucous, excessive celebration of Simchat Torah, when we mark the end and beginning of another Torah reading cycle with dancing and revelry. Rather it is a quiet, understated celebration, our least-known festival, a tribute to a moment of revelation when, as with all revelations, there was silence. And there was speech. And then the world changed, forever: for us, for every Jew who came before or after. A cord connecting us all.