At the moment of the revelation of the Torah, the midrash tells us, an other-worldly silence descended on the Earth. “When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird screeched, no fowl flew, no ox mooed … The sea did not roar, and none of the creatures uttered a sound. Throughout the entire world there was only silence as the divine voice went forth, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God’” (Exodus Rabbah 29:9).
This midrash offers a poetic description of a moment of preternatural silence, as if the entire planet waited, completely still, anticipating the sacred moment of revelation.
How might we relate to this metaphor of cosmic silence? Try to imagine as a poet might: What if all of creation were silent for a moment? What would we hear? What might be revealed in the silence?
I had a taste of such sacred silence in January when I attended a weeklong silent meditation retreat. For seven days, 97 people shared silence, alternating periods of sitting meditation, of slow, contemplative walking, and silent meals. Difficult as this may be to imagine, the silence was beautiful, soothing and refreshing.
What is more, the content we explored in the silence was the offering of lovingkindness to ourselves and to others.
On the first day, we recited phrases expressing wishes of well-being for ourselves: “May you be safe and protected from harm. May you be well in body, mind and spirit. May you be happy. May you be at peace.” On the second day, we extended those same wishes to a beloved person in our lives; on the third day, to a friend. Toward the end of the week, our practice deepening, we offered these same universal wishes of well-being to a difficult person in our lives, and then to all beings in the world.
As we all practiced in silence, an extraordinary spirit emerged among us. With no place to hurry to, and a desire to care for those around us, people walked gently, opening and closing doors quietly, waving others ahead to enter the dining hall, expressing exquisite concern for one another at all times.
In other words, what was revealed in the silence was the wisdom of kindness as a way to live in the world.
Though this particular retreat was under Buddhist auspices, the wisdom of kindness is richly present in Jewish tradition. The rabbis teach that the Torah is a book of kindness from start to finish (Sotah 14a), and that acts of lovingkindness replaced the offering of sacrifices in the Temple (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11a). “Love of kindness” is one of the “big three” principles that God commands us to place at the center of our lives: “doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
When God described Godself to Moses, it was as “gracious and compassionate, forbearing, abundant in kindness and truth, merciful and forgiving” (Exodus 34:6).
Thus, the essential revelation of today’s parashah — “I am the Lord your God … ” (Exodus 20:2) — is the virtues of kindness, compassion, generosity and forgiveness.
In silent meditation, I had a glimpse of living in imitation of the One who is the Source and Center of kindness and compassion. Living this way would include countless discrete acts of gemilut hasadim (deeds of lovingkindness), to be sure. But it would also mean a seamless, continuous focus on one another’s well-being, constant alertness to opportunities to help and encourage one another, and willingness to step back from our own needs to support others.
It would mean commitment to caring for the space and time we share together, and willingness to exercise self-restraint for the benefit of the common good.
It was a beautiful taste of what life could be. Back in the land of the speaking, it is all so much noisier and more complicated. There is work to do, human dynamics to deal with, and, of course, the news.
But in that week of blessed silence, it all seemed so clear: There is nothing more important than offering kindness to ourselves and others. May we let this revelation define our lives, and may we spread it throughout the world.