Did any of you ever play the quiet game on a family car ride? You know, where the goal is to see who can go the longest without talking. Once someone makes a sound though, the game is over because that is the one rule of the game. Make a sound and all bets are off. This game was very effective on my brother and me growing up whenever my mom wanted some peace and quiet in the car. In reality it only ever lasted a few minutes. But, can you imagine playing the quiet game on road trip for three days? Now that’s a long time to go without any talking. This is essentially what Abraham and Isaac do in the story of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac. In this portion, we learn that Abraham is instructed by G-d to sacrifice Isaac and during the three days during which they travel to this site of sacrifice, there are no words shared between them, just silence.

There are many different types of silence. There is awkward silence, overwhelmed silence, companionable silence, the silence of being ignored. They all have very different feels to them. I started thinking about this idea of silence when I was considering why we look at the Binding of Isaac every year during Rosh Hashanah. At first glance it’s an odd story to think about when you consider that we are welcoming in our new year, a time when we get to start fresh. Abraham, our first Jewish patriarch, who spent so many years praying and asking G-d for a son, without a word, accepts G-d’s command to sacrifice that very same beloved son. So, for three days Abraham is silent and Isaac only speaks a moment before the sacrifice is supposed to take place, asking: but where is the lamb that we are to sacrifice? And Abraham has nothing to offer but a vague response of: “G-d will see to the lamb for the burnt offering.” And then in the very last moment before he is supposed to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham has his knife in his hand, an angel calls out in the voice of G-d: STOP! Don’t lay a hand on the boy for there is a ram just behind you who will be sacrificed instead. For a scene that just makes you want to yell and say WOAH, HEY, STOP the whole time, there’s a lot of silence. There is so much that we don’t get to hear. And this all makes me wonder, what purpose can we find in what appears to be the emptiness of silence?

Silence can tell us a story that words cannot. Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, left an audience with a chilling speech during a rally fighting for gun control. And what was the most moving part of her speech? She said absolutely nothing for several minutes. At first there were cheers in support of her. Perhaps they thought their cheers would encourage her to keep speaking, to give her the strength to find her words. But she needed no strength to find her words. She stayed silent until her timer went off marking 6 minutes and 20 seconds since she had started her speech, the same amount of time it took for a shooter to take the lives of 17 of her classmates. Slowly but surely, people realized what she was doing, and they stayed silent with her as tears streamed down her face. It was through her silence that we could feel her fear on the day of that shooting and her pain ever since. There were no words to describe just how she felt in that moment, so instead she showed them by filling the space with silence.

Silence can be difficult. I’m thinking of silent meditation. For some of us, it’s one of the most difficult things we can be asked to do: to sit with our thoughts in complete silence, no distractions, just you and your mind. That can be scary. Today, we are so often listening to music or podcasts, when we are in the car, taking a walk, doing work. There’s even a website I’ve used that simulates sitting in a coffee shop just so that you can have that white noise to fill any empty silence. There is always something there to take us away from the moment in which we are existing. But it is often that we are at our most creative when we are surrounded by silence, when the music is turned down and the podcasts are paused.

Silence is fragile and can be shattered. Amidst thinking about all of this silence, I am struck by the sound of the Shofar. What a juxtaposition: the cry of the shofar and the silence of all those listening. The shofar demands to be heard. It’s not just a call, it is truly a cry. It totally shatters the silence in any room. And in fact, the shofar brings us all the way back to the Akeida. Abraham is called to by an angel who reveals a ram, whose horn is typically used for the purpose of making a shofar. It is only through an angel’s call by way of a ram appearing that the silence of injustice we see in the Akeida is shattered. Abraham is forced to physically turn to see this ram and even more, he is forced to realize something that could have been there the whole time, had he just looked around. He had been paralyzed in his silence. He kept the truth from Isaac for three days and now the whole test of faith that provoked this silent journey is shattered in this moment and we are forced to rethink all of the silence that just took place. Maybe silence was not the right answer here.

Silence in the face of injustice is destructive. As Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, told the world: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Here, Wiesel shrewdly reminds us of just how dangerous silence has been and how he has suffered because of the silence of others. Going forward, it is only through raising our voices and breaking silence that we can end the suffering of others.

But silence can also sometimes be exactly what someone needs. When I was in middle school, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has since fully recovered, but during that time I was deeply uncomfortable by the idea of cancer and I was not sure how to cope with that stress. I wasn’t sure what to say to my own mom. When she was home in bed recovering from chemo treatments, I would sit next to her, not saying a word. I was busy playing computer games, partially because I was very invested in my game at this age, but mostly because I wanted to be with my mom, I just didn’t have the words to express that at the time. I recently talked to her about these days where she would lay resting and I would sit next to her, eyes glued to the screen and much to my surprise, she revealed that it was exactly what she needed in that moment. She didn’t need me to say words of encouragement, she just needed me existing there, reminding her I was there, and that life was carrying on as usual.

Silence can give us space to listen. My good friend and classmate, Anna, recently had vocal chord surgery. She was instructed to be on vocal rest for two weeks, so that meant absolutely no talking, no whispering, no audible exhales! Yes, she could write down her responses, but that doesn’t come nearly as quickly as words from one’s brain to mouth. When I first heard about this, I thought Anna? Not talking for two weeks? A full 14 days? No way. She’s one of the most expressive, gregarious people I know. But she later told me that it was during those 14 days of silence that she was forced to focus on her non-verbal gestures, on her listening, on her eye contact that she made with people. So often, these are things we forget to focus on in a world where we are talking, sharing, disagreeing, adding onto ideas, waiting for someone else to finish making their point so that we can get to the thing we’ve been wanting to say the whole conversation. When we are silent, we make room for those around us. We give them space to share their thoughts, to feel heard when they share those thoughts, and to feel appreciated by us. By making room for silence, we make room for others.

Silence can foster holiness. This past year I had the opportunity to live in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school. It was Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur that I truly felt the holidays. And it was through silence that I could feel the holidays. On every other day of the week, people were laying on their horns without respite and cars were speeding by, and vendors were yelling out prices and deals better than their neighbors, but on Shabbat and on the High Holidays, it was all so different. The silence was magical. I walked freely in the middle of streets for blocks on end, as there wasn’t a car in sight. I didn’t feel the holiday because someone came up to me and said, “Shanah Tova,” I felt it because that was all I heard. Here, silence has the power of freedom.

Silence can make room for the Divine. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that the Hebrew word for desert, “meedbar” comes from the same root as “medaber,” speaker or “medubar,” that which is spoken. So really when you are in the most silent place, the desert, is when you can hear that which is said, perhaps by G-d, perhaps within ourselves. It is only when everything is totally silent that you can not only hear but also listen to what is being said. In Shemot Rabbah, midrash which expands on the story of Exodus, we learn that the Torah is continuously being spoken from Sinai without interruption1, but we cannot hear it because of all of the distractions surrounding us. Only at Sinai, the text tells us, “When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird screeched, no fowl flew, no ox mooed, none of the angels flapped a wing, nor did the celestial beings chant ‘Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh!’ The sea did not roar, and none of the creatures uttered a sound. Throughout the entire world there was only a deafening silence as the Divine Voice went forth speaking.”2

I see the example of Sinai as a testament to how we tend to go about our daily lives today. There is always a new technology to distract us from being in the moment. We are constantly moving, talking and sharing ideas so much that we sometimes forget to listen. We forget to listen to our bodies telling us that we are tired, we forget to listen to the people who care about us most trying to give us honest feedback, we forget to listen to the voice of the Divine that exists all around us if only we silenced the rest of the world to listen. As Jews, this is the time, and this is the place to listen deeply, turn inward and contemplate the kind of person we want to be this year. This is the most powerful tradition given to us—a time and a space separate from the noise in our lives. We get this opportunity every week during Shabbat and now during the High Holidays we are granted this luxury once again. Here, we can embrace silence.

Looking back, any number of things could have been running through Abraham’s head. He was deeply torn. He couldn’t show it, lest he confirm to Isaac his betrayal and have to cope with that during those 3 days of travel. Maybe silence was an act of comfort for himself. Maybe his silence was his teaching moment for his son, who could not have understood what was being asked of his father. Maybe his silence was out of fear for what would happen if he did speak up. I am truly not sure if something was said at all between them or if Abraham SHOULD have said something. What we do know is that this silence would forever change them. According to the Torah, they never share words with each other again. It seems that the silence created a rift between them because of how full it was. Thus, it was necessary for this ram, perhaps his own personal shofar, to call out to him. The silence Abraham was prolonging was finally shattered and he was freed from the captivity of his silence. Sometimes silence can be a prison.

How do we want to use silence in this upcoming year? Will we use it to teach? To bring comfort? To listen? As fragile as it may be, it is incredibly powerful and often, it is anything but empty. I believe that there is wonderful potential in challenging ourselves to grow into silence. As we go forward into these Days of Awe, I encourage you to rethink the role that silence can play in your lives. There is no better time that the beginning of the year for us to reevaluate how we will use silence, so let’s start today. My wish for all of you is that you can embrace the beauty of silence. May you be ready to listen to it and may the silence that was once found at Sinai become not such a far-off midrash. Shana Tova.

[1] Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder, 94-95.
[2] Shemot Rabbah 29:9