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Torah: Sounds of nothing allow exploration of the sacred spaces

Yitro

Exodus 18:1–20:23

Isaiah 6:1–7:6, 9:5-6

As a tradition, we don’t talk much about silence. We love words. Ours is a tradition of rich, cacophonous speech; rabbinic literature is full of passionate, engaged debate. When we find a rare moment of private prayer in our thick siddur, suggested words come to fill the otherwise uncomfortable void.

Is there any place in our practice for silence?

This week’s portion brings us the dramatic giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Until this moment, we have been slaves and wanderers. At the mount, as thunder claps in the heavens and the earth quakes beneath our feet, we become a people.

But what happens to us in the wilderness of Sinai? What are we given? What do we hear?

One commentary tells us that the entire Torah is imparted at the mountain, from the opening verses of creation to Moses’ death. Another argues that only the Ten Commandments are given, the iconic image of Moses descending the mountain with two tablets. Still another reading suggests that only the first two commandments are spoken, since only in those does God speak in the first person.

But I find the most compelling interpretation is a teaching attributed to the 18th-century Chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow (Zera’ Qodesh, Shavu’ot), who tells us that the only utterance at Mount Sinai is the “alef,” the first letter of the Ten Commandments.

Psalm 62:12 reads, “One thing God has spoken,” so Rabbi Rymanow posits that this one utterance must have been the first letter, the alef. The alef is silent; a letter without sound of its own. In Kabbalah, alef is also considered to be a primordial letter, pre-existing language. In this reading, therefore, all that was transmitted at the most profound moment of spiritual connection between God and our people was … nothing. Silence. The absence of words, the sound of nothing but breath.

Many of us, especially here in the Bay Area, seek out forms of prayer that rely less on words and more on silent, contemplative practice. We often find this quiet contemplation in yogic practice or other Eastern traditions. But is there a place for this type of worship in our home tradition?

If God gave us “alef” at the most profound moment of spiritual connection, then I believe we can return to that moment for guidance. The Sinai experience, arguably the most important event in our people’s story, provides an invitation for those who seek a contemplative and experiential home within Judaism. And since that moment was timeless, every time we sit in silence and await a glimmer of revelation, we return to the foot of the mountain. When we stand again at Sinai, we are given the gift of silence amid chaos, a timeless practice.

The Torah itself contains silence. A Torah scroll is written in accordance with specific spiritual rules. One is that there has to be sufficient white space around each of the black letters. No letter in the Torah can touch another, and it is the white space that prevents this. The white space, the silence, is considered a higher form of the divine word.

Perhaps when God spoke the “alef” at Sinai, it was to ensure that we would appreciate both the language of the Torah and the quiet, graceful white space surrounding the letters.

Another Chassidic rabbi, Aharon of Karlin, wrote a letter to his relative. After catching up on daily life, he left a paragraph-size blank space. After his signature, he wrote, “Now, I left the paper blank … if you wish, you can read even the blank space, for in the blank space there is more than what is actually written …”

The blank space is that silence offered to us at Mount Sinai, the sacred pause that can contain far more than speech sometimes allows. Delving into that space can lead us to a deeper connection with the Divine. Can we train ourselves to read the white spaces, too?

As we revisit revelation in this portion, may we find in it not only the gift of sacred words but also the divine silence that was revealed at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at rabbimrc@stanford.edu.

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Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."