The First Stage: The Silence of Absence
The aforementioned passage in the Zohar (Exodus 25a) suggests that there are three distinct stages in the continuum from slavery to freedom. The first stage is silence. The second stage involves moving from silence to sound without speech. And the third stage is speech–voice and articulated word.
In the first stage, slavery, we are mute and dumb. We live our lives without ever really crying out. The routines of the everyday deaden our sense of injustice, and our passions atrophy amid the narrowness of Egypt, when all sounds are smothered in our throats. In the biblical myth, the people were silent in the first stage of exile in Egypt. The pain broke their spirits and they became mute–no longer able to even cry out, much less to express the injustices with the eloquence of speech. We all have touched a fraction of that experience when, after a protracted argument, we are so worn down that we lack the strength to protest even the most blatant offenses of those who oppose or oppress us.
In a less familiar reading of the biblical story, Talmudic masters suggest that the slavery in Egypt was not of the usual kind. In fact, the Israelites were successful and prosperous. However, the deadening quality and comfort of their routine had anesthetized the sensitivity to their own wounds of alienation. How many of us suffer and hurt, yet remain fundamentally unaware of our suffering, deadened by the soma pills of the expected, and the narrow straits of success?
The disease of leprosy in the ancient world was considered so horrible not just because it caused extreme disfigurement. That was only a side effect. The agent of the disease itself was a bacteria called Hansen’s Bacillus, which destroyed the nerve fibers carrying the sensation of pain. In this painless state, a person could continue walking on a broken leg, thus causing irreparable damage and further disfigurement–and even greater estrangement from the world at large.
To be numb to pain is to be prone to a deeper damage. The anesthetizing effect of unbearable agony (or apathy) can be the most devastating enemy of all. The biblical slaves were broken bones being pressed with burdens they could not hold—and their nerve endings went numb to the weight. Their enslavement was complete when they “lost their nerve” to act up, and to cry out.
Biblical myth writer Y. L. Peretz, writing at the turn of the last century, tells the story of Bonsche the Silent.
All the heavens were in an uproar. Bonsche the Silent, the most righteous man, had died. Bonsche, who never complained and always accepted his fate with graceful silence, was coming to heaven– what a day! The angels exuberantly recounted the tales of humility of this silent saintly man–how he never asked for anything, was always simple, accepting, and sublimely silent! The angels rolled out the reddest celestial carpet they could conjure; the other celestial hosts were eager to honor their celebrity; and even God was getting involved.
On his arrival to heaven, Bonsche was granted a meeting with God. This was more than unusual – it was never done–but for holy Bonsche an exception was made. He came before the throne and heard the divine voice say, “Ask for anything. Anything you want is yours.”
Never had the celestial hosts heard anything like it. Every ear strained to hear – what would Bonsche say?
Bonsche was a little overwhelmed by all the attention. After all, he viewed himself as a simple man. He responded to God,. “It would be wonderful if I could have a roll and butter every day.”
When my Buddhist brothers heard this story, they went wild. What a Satori story, they said, what an example of total detachment and simplicity, the reduction of all expectations, the giving up of desire even when God offers you everything! Yet the biblical myth perspective reads this story differently. We say—“What a shmuck”! God offered Bonsche everything and all he could think to ask for is a bagel and butter? If he wanted nothing for himself, then what of a world which suffers so? For them as well he could think of nothing to ask? Master or not, was he so absent from himself that he also no longer feel the joy or pain of other?
Indeed, we biblical myth readers look at his life of silence and view it as a tragedy. Bonsche is totally disconnected from his own needs–from his own story. He is called Bonsche the Silent one because he has no voice. His silence is a Silence of Absence. It emmanates from the void and is a violation of divine presence.
The Disguises of Silence
How does this first level of slavery-silence play in our lives? Where do we hear the sounds of silence? One of the subtlest disguises of silence can be speech.
All of us, through fear or habit, create boxes of clarity for ourselves that reassure yet limit us. Mendel of Kutzk pleads with us to remember that the hebrew world for ‘letter’ – the basic building block of speech is Teivah- not accidentally precisely the same hebrew word which means enclosure or box.
The loss of meaning that comes with the familiarity of speech is one of the subtler and therefore more insidious boxes of the human spirit. Words, with all of their power to reveal, can become hiding places through overuse. Once words and turns-of-phrase become familiar, they lose their associative depth and their power to lead us to the experience they represent. How many twentieth-century tired cliches were the dazzling wordplays of the Elizabethans? When it first appeared in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s coining of a term like the “mind’s eye” was an original, compact, and evocative condensation of a more internal form of perception. Now the phrase is the stuff of hack journalists and junk novelists. Speech can be nothing more than a noisy kind of silence.
Too often speech about emotions becomes the way to move away from feeling. We can define and redefine vulnerability through words until the truth of what we describe fades away. Too often we get lost in routine speak which, in the language of the mystics, has the quality of noise but lacks the quality of sound. In essence, it is silence…silence of absence.
This post is part of a series of posts “Foundations for World Spirituality: Learning the Language of God” which begins with Part 1.