Isolation and the Sound of Silence

A message to my good friends at St Johns Wood

 by Rabbi Yisroel Fine

As the coronavirus has taken its grip worldwide, a welcome biproduct has been a drastic reduction in the air pollution of our major cities.

Pollution in all its forms has eroded the life quality of modern man. We no longer breathe freely because of air pollution. We are no longer enchanted by the night sky because of light pollution, and perhaps most saddening of all there are sounds that we no longer hear because of noise pollution.

I am not referring to the hearing of the ear but to that of the mind. The freedom and space to be alive to the thoughts and the sounds that we generate ourselves is increasingly crowded out by the constant ‘noise’ generated by others. We hear the sounds of others, but barely have the time or capacity to tune in to our own.

It was for this reason that Sages of the past wandered for months, sometimes years to achieve atonement for themselves or for Klal Yisroel.

The eerie silence that envelopes us all as society shuts itself down, has brought with it a silence that we are simply not used to. The silence of the street, of the home and of course our shuls. But with silence comes opportunities, spiritual opportunities; the sublime silence which allows the soul to feel awe and reverence in the presence of the Almighty.

It was this search for silence that moved Elijah the Prophet to seclude himself in a cave at Mount Sinai. His triumph against the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel had failed to quell the enmity of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. As he sought out the Divine Presence, he experienced tempest, earthquake and fire.  Only to be told by the Angel: – לא ברוח הי לא ברעש הי לא באש הי ואחר האש קול דממה דקה. – “Hashem is not in the tempest. Hashem is not in the earthquake. Hashem is not in the fire, but after the fire a still small voice”

It is this “still small voice” which so often struggles to find a wave length in our spiritual reception, that is now heard to full effect as we spend meaningful time in the silence which surrounds us.

For the first time in our memory, due to our extraordinary circumstances, many of us may not hear the Mah Nishtana recited by our children. That is a sound we will not hear. However, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch says that the most eloquent Mah Nishtanah of all is a silent one. It is the silent Mah Nishtanah of a newly born baby as its eyes meet lovingly and beseechingly with those of its parents. They express the timeless yearning of every child – Mah Nishtanah – unravel for me the meaning of this wondrous, perplexing and frightening of worlds that I have entered.

The “still small voice” of the Almighty is every parent’s ultimate gift to their child – we just have to make sure that we hear it ourselves.