Something remarkable happened last night, something no one thought possible, and something that really struck me in a surprising and unexpected way. No, I don’t mean that Spurs won (although that fits the same criteria), but rather that, during the match between them and Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, a *successful* minute of silence was observed for Emiliano Sala, the Cardiff City footballer who perished in a plane crash along with the single-engine’s pilot, David Ibbotson.
As anyone who has ever been in front of a classroom can testify, getting 20 people to be totally silent for a full minute is a gargantuan challenge. Therefore, to get 71,214 people to be silent (many of whom are there specifically to yell and may or may not have been intoxicated) is a truly miraculous feat. To be honest, I was surprised they even attempted it. But I was glad to be proven wrong when the stirring sound of over 70,000 people’s conscious silence was reverberating around Wembley stadium.
What is the sound of silence? The question is more than a zen koan or a terrifyingly catchy Simon and Garfunkel folk ballad. Real silence is more than simply the absence of sound, it is a conscious and considerate effort to listen rather than speak. In many religious systems, silence is a virtue unto itself– with many sects and practitioners of mystical schools in particular taking vows of silence, some even for their entire lifetime.
Unsurprisingly, there are no Jewish monks who undertake a vow of silence, yet there are many records of medieval pietistic communities where someone would adopt a short-term tsom dibbur (fast from speaking), usually as part of a broader spiritual exercise. These rituals were always based on the Biblical and rabbinic teachings which endorsed the power of silence to convey spiritual truth.
In the Book of Kings (1,19), we read about Elijah’s encounter with God, who we are told repeatedly, is not in the fire, not in the smoke, not in the thunder, not in the lightning– but instead, appears only in the kol d’mamah dakkah, ‘the subtle sound of silence.’ Later, our Sages endorse silence as a practice. Rabbi Akiva teaches in Pirké Avot that ‘Silence is a fence for wisdom’, and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamli’el (whose father was the leading Sage of his generation) writes: ‘All my days I grew up among the rabbis, and never did I discover anything better for a person than silence.’ Ouch!
There are lots of times when silence is the best response we’ve got. However, there are just as many instances when a response that doesn’t transcend silence fails to say much at all. A year to the day after the shooting in Parkland, Florida– silence still pervades public domain. Yet, there are other times when silence is helpful, powerful, even spiritual. I think the difference lies in what I observed last night in the silence of 70,000 football fans: not having anything to say is not the same as choosing not to say anything.
For those of us there last night, a moment of silence was a conscious effort, one that required focus and energy. That kind of silence is the kind our Sages praised and the kind in which God maybe can be heard. Perhaps in our own lives we should consider the silences (or lack of) we encounter. Is silence an absence, or is it the subtlest sound of quiet protest, of careful listening, and of wise consideration?