We live in a world of unabating noise. Whether it’s from rumbling traffic or blaring headlines or roaring movie theater speakers, we are surrounded by decibel levels unknown to previous generations. And beyond sheer amplitude, the noise is ubiquitous - everyone is talking, politicians and celebrities and people on the street and reality TV stars and columnists and bloggers and so on, as though humanity has forgotten how to stop talking.
Thank Gd for the Internet; now, everything is published, to a worldwide audience. Everyone is publishable, from a one-line Twitter note like “I’m packing for a trip” to a video of yourself singing a song on YouTube to a blog post about the note you just saw on Twitter or the silly video you just saw on Youtube. The result: Utter cacophony.
This cacophony reminds me of Bilam, the villain of our parshah, a man who spends the entire parshah talking to and at anyone who will spare him a minute. He’s a combination yenta and used-car salesman on fast-forward - never, ever, ever at a loss for words. Bilam never heard the wise counsel attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
• Gd tells Bilam not to go curse the Jews, but Bilam keeps talking until even Gd surrenders, saying, “Fine, go.”
• Bilam’s donkey starts talking to him, and Bilam doesn’t miss a beat in the conversation.
• Bilam sees a sword-wielding angel and, instead of rearing back in fear as Yehoshua would do later in the Torah, Bilam chats with him.
• Bilam can’t prevent himself from blessing the Jews, but he keeps right on talking anyway, urging Balak, king of Moav, to give him another chance, and then another.
• Then, frustrated at Bilam’s blessings, Balak kicks him out in disgrace. Bilam is dragged off-stage by the scruff of his neck - but even then he’s hondling, saying, “Wait, hang on, there’s just one more thing I want to tell you!” and he proceeds to deliver yet another message.
Bilam is a parent’s ultimate nightmare - a Talk-to-Me-Elmo toy that doesn’t need batteries and has no Off button.
Contrast Bilam’s constant prattle with the pragmatic advice of our sages:
• סיג לחכמה שתיקה , Silence protects wisdom.
• מילה בסלע, משתוקא בתרין - If a word costs a dollar, pay two dollars for silence.
• Or, in the words of Mishlei, which presumably inspired Lincoln: “Even a silent fool is thought to be wise, and one with sealed lips is thought to be a man of understanding.”
But the Torah stresses silence as more than a pragmatic ideal, or a blessed respite for tired ears; silence is a supreme spiritual value.
• When Gd tells Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, Avraham is silently acquiescent - and Gd praises and rewards him for that silence.
• When Aharon loses his sons Nadav and Avihu, he is praised for the articulate inexpression of וידם אהרן, his silent response.
• When Chanah pleads with Gd for a child, she does it silently; רק שפתיה נעות וקולה לא ישמע, her lips move but she produces no sound, and our own silent Shmoneh Esreih is modeled on that inaudible prayer of hers.
Most importantly, consider the remarkable story of Eliyahu haNavi. Exasperated with a nation that refused to consistently worship Gd but instead habitually strayed after idols, Eliyahu lashed out in a tirade, “קנא קנאתי לה' I have been zealous for You Gd, the Jewish people have violated Your covenant, they have destroyed Your altars, they have murdered Your prophets by the sword, and only I remain, and they want to kill me as well!”
To which Gd replied, “Go stand before Me on the mountain, and I will pass before you.” And then a great wind blew, smashing stones, but Eliyahu was told, “Gd is not in the wind.”
And then the ground shook and there was a great noise, but Eliyahu was told, “Gd is not in the noise.”
And then there was a great fire, but Eliyahu was told, “Gd is not in the fire.”
And then all that remained was a קול דממה דקה, a thin whisper, and then Eliyahu left the mountain.
Gd was telling Eliyahu that noisy explosions and great, thundering tantrums are not the highest power; the silence of one who is capable of explosions, and chooses to refrain from them, is still greater.
Mind you, Eliyahu, don’t mistake silence for impotence; the same being Whose will is expressed in the thinnest note is simultaneously capable of consuming flame, of shattering cataclysm, of mighty wind. Silence is not the inability to act, but rather the ability to refrain from acting. איזהו גבור, הכובש את יצרו - True power is not in conquest, but in deciding when to conquer, and when to be patient.
On a human level, this self-censorship is the supreme spiritual benefit of silence - a recognition of limits, a decision that what we have to say will not help achieve our goals. Silence is the “voice” of someone who thinks to himself, “I could speak, but it wouldn’t accomplish what I want to accomplish,” and so he chooses to refrain.
And on a Divine level, as Rav Yosef Albo and Ralbag taught, silence represents Divine subtlety, in which the Hand of the Creator which could so easily impose itself upon us all is barely sensed, rarely visible and never imposed upon His creations.
As the Kabbalists put it, Divine Silence is צמצום, HaShem’s self-imposed limitation on His explicit involvement in our world. When we ask why bad things happen to good people, when our belief in the ultimate morality of the universe is shaken by tyranny empowered by Free Will, when Eliyahu challenges his Gd for his own suffering and for the absence of the mighty Hand of Justice, the Divine absence is expressed by this silence that says, “I” - the Divine “I” - “have nothing to say yet.”
This noble restraint is what Bilam fails to comprehend. For Bilam, it’s all about the noise, the words, putting together a message that will get him what he wants - generally, silver and gold. If yesterday’s words didn’t do it, today’s words, tomorrow’s words, the next speech, the next curse, will do it.
Bilam once had a home, servants, a great reputation, even the ability to talk to Gd. Had Bilam been silent and remained at home when so instructed by Gd, he could have had everything - he would have survived, with or without wealth. But he insisted on filibustering Gd, and the result was that he lost everything - reputation first, and ultimately his life.
This isn’t a speech promoting silence in shul - although that might be a good place to start, I suppose. But, no, it’s more about silence in general, and a lesson for everyone - me first, frankly.
In a world that takes “Publish or Perish” as an imperative driving every human being to express every thought and even record it for posterity, encouraging the reporting of every item of לשון הרע and רכילות, the airing of every personal observation and dispute in public in violation of our value of שלום, we ought to study this Divine קול דממה דקה, this small voice, this צמצום restraint, and apply it to our own existence. I can only speak for myself, but this I can say: I talk way too much.
We are taught that the opposite of Bilam is Moshe; Moshe’s appreciation for silence is one of the central ways in which he differentiates himself from a man who was his equal in prophecy but his opposite in character.
Moshe is introduced to us as a כבד פה, a man with trouble speaking, who doesn’t feel comfortable in his public role. The man who would bring to Earth the most important words ever spoken is a humble, reluctant orator.
Moshe understands that Gd is discovered in a sound so thin as to be nearly inaudible, and yet deep enough to contain the majesty of the Creator of All. Moshe understands the power of a Being who surely can thunder like Eliyahu but who chooses the containment of Chanah. Moshe is the one to convey that Being’s message to Earth.
Bilam leads the people of Moav and Midyan to corruption, and, ultimately, to destruction. Moshe, on the other hand, leads the Jews to the verge of their entry into Israel. Perhaps, if we can learn the value of Silence, we will soon merit the same.
1. Yes, this derashah was inspired by my post here.
2. The Lincoln quote is also attributed to Mark Twain.
3. The quote about paying two dollars for silence is from Megilah 18a. The Mishlei sentence is 17:28. Eliyahu's story is Melachim I 19. Ralbag is from his comments to that chapter. R' Yosef Albo is from Sefer haIkkarim 2:31. Bilam's death is mentioned in Bamidbar 31:8.
4. On the Divine non-imposition, see the beautiful comments ofR’ Jonathan Sacks at http://www.chiefrabbi.org/faith/revelation.html and http://www.chiefrabbi.org/thoughts/vaetchanan.htm