Imagine standing at the foot of a desolate mountain in a barren wilderness, surrounded by close to three million men, women and children. Picture the scene as a dark cloud descends upon the mountain, along with brilliant flashes of lightning, explosions of thunder and an ear-piercing blast from an unseen shofar. If you’ve got this picture in your head, you’ve gotten a tiny glimpse of how awesome it must have been to stand at Sinai.
But wait! If you want a true depiction of that momentous occasion you need to remember that all that noise and commotion was really nothing more than a cosmic warm up act before the main event. When it actually came time for God to utter the Ten Commandments, the entire universe was filled with a wondrous silence.
When the Holy One Blessed is He presented the Torah at Sinai, not a bird chirped, not a fowl flew, not an ox lowed, not an angel ascended, not a seraph proclaimed ‘kadosh’ (holy). The sea did not roll and no creature made a sound. All of the vast universe was silent and mute. It was then that the voice went forth and proclaimed: I am Hashem your God! (Medrash Shemos Rabbah 29:9)
It’s not surprising that the dramatic events of Sinai would captivate the world and inspire a unique moment of universal silence. Perhaps those events can teach us something about the value of silence in our personal lives as well.
There are essentially two kinds of silence. There is an external silence characterized by an absence of noise, which has many obvious benefits. But there is also an internal silence – a silence of the mind – which while less obvious to the ear, brings with it far greater benefits than the mere absence of noise: It signifies the presence of wisdom.
Judaism teaches that a powerful spark of godly presence lies at the core of every human being. This spark – commonly referred to as the soul – is not only the source of the body’s life force; it’s a potent source of wisdom and creativity; our own personal voice of God. It speaks to us all the time. It desperately wants us to pay attention so that it can guide us and provide us with the answers that we seek. But like all voices of wisdom, it speaks calmly and quietly. It has no interest in competing. So while its insight is simple, obvious and compelling, sadly, most of us are way too preoccupied with the noise in our heads (read: our brilliant thinking) to hear it most of the time.
We don’t need to send our mind on vacation in order to access our inner wisdom, but it would sure help if we could stop making it work overtime. Unfortunately, most of us don’t even realize that we over-think our lives. In fact, we tend to believe that all of the analyzing, mulling, calculating, considering and obsessing that we do is a great idea, precisely because we don’t call it those things. In our minds, we call it being responsible, realistic, and proactive, which is why we not only think too much, but usually consider it to be a tremendous mitzvah as well. The problem, however, is that we’ll never quiet down enough to hear our inner wisdom until we realize that a large percentage of our thinking is not only futile, but harmful.
I often ask the over-thinkers that I coach two questions. The first is: Did you find what you’re looking for? The answer, of course, is almost always no, since over-thinking is by definition an exercise in futility. Going round and round in circles in our head – what I often refer to as the washing machine – never takes us beyond what we already know. In fact, it’s the very definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over while hoping for different results. The insight that we seek is fresh and new. We will never find it in our stale, old thinking.
The second question I ask is: Does all that thinking leave you feeling good? Once again, the answer is almost always no, because excess mental activity tends to make us feel frustrated and tired. It also tends to make us lose the very perspective that we seek as we sink deeper and deeper into our problems. It’s kind of like trying to free your car from a muddy ditch by pressing harder on the gas pedal. It may feel like a good idea, but all you end up with is a deeper rut and a bigger mess.
A simple cost-benefit analysis of our cerebral activity will demonstrate that the old adage – less is more –still applies, but we won't shift our mind out of overdrive until we realize that there’s a viable and dependable alternative to all that thinking. We will never let go of our mental steering wheel unless we can recall the moments when we were guided to our destination, not by our active intellect, but by the quiet voice of our own inner wisdom.
Our mystical tradition teaches us that every soul in every generation heard God speak at Sinai. I believe that we have all heard the small voice of God that speaks from within us as well. We have all experienced quiet moments of insight. Deep down, we know that we possess an innate intelligence that can provide us with the answers that we seek. Only one question really remains: Are we willing to quiet down and listen?
“All my days I have been raised among the sages and I have found nothing better for oneself than silence.” (Pirkei Avot – 1:17)
Wishing you a joyous and meaningful Shavuot.