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Parshat Chukat: The Power of Silence

The philosopher Theodor Adorno speaks about the notion of silence as an absolute expression of permanence. The silence that followed the Shoah was not a statement of emptiness and nothingness but rather an expression of everything. Historically, the silence of the survivors was mistaken for an inability to speak or express, but according to Adorno, it was an affirmative statement of the fullness of expression through its absence. We often think that language can express everything, that if only we 'talk,' everything will be okay. However when  we recognize the magnitude of the language that silence speaks. Many of the survivors of 07/10 have remained silent about their experiences, not only due to the immense trauma they endured but also because articulating such an incomprehensible ordeal in words diminishes its gravity, reducing its ineffability to the limits of organized language.

For silence to be meaningful, we must first understand the power of speech. Language organizes the chaos of our minds into a rational system that can be universally understood. Once we know the role of language and its organizing principles, silence represents its opposite: chaos, ineffable turmoil, and the inexpressible. Elie Wiesel poignantly states, "In the beginning there was silence – no words. The word itself is a breaking out. The word itself is an act of violence; it breaks the silence." Sometimes, words can violate the very notion they come to express.

In challenging times, words often fail to capture the complexities of our emotions. Silence, though sometimes mistaken for impoliteness, can be the easiest option. The profundity of silent communication is evident in a couple who, after many years together, communicate through a look or a silent expression.

In Today's world silence had become a rare commodity as our minds are hijacked by the cacophony of inaudible soundbites. Relationships are defined in the pictures we post rather than in the sustained act of listening to the other and truly ‘seeing’ them.

It is no surprise that in the book that catalogues the relationship between God and His people there are countless narratives about speech – from Miriam speaking badly of Moshe to the people's complaints and Moshe hitting the rock instead of speaking to it.

The event in this weeks Parsha of Moshe hitting the rock is odd. He is asked to take his rod, as he did with the first generation and then told to speak to the rock. Why then instruct him to take the rod? After the event God says to Moshe and Aaron that they will not enter the land because:" יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל : Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people”.    What is the meaning of God’s words here. What is it about this event in particular that prevents them from entering the land?

The first generation of Israelites were slaves with a one-dimensional existence, unable to process and express their reality. At Sinai, they "saw the sounds," reflecting their need for visual affirmation of God. They were a generation dependent on empirical evidence as a crutch to faith. The second generation evolves from survival to meaning, from a muted existence to one rich with expression, to a generation of the eye to a generation of the ear. In this journey they grow up and the foundation of their faith matures.

Moshe, a leader with challenges in speech, found silence both a necessity and a deficit. His silence created a persona of distance, criticized by God, Yitro, and even Miriam.

At the rock, Moshe was angry at the people, reliving the complaints of the first generation. He could not talk to the people or the rock, feeling that speech was useless. He struck the rock, using visual tools to express the inexpressible. However, God wanted the people to move beyond symbols to language. Language ennobles us, allowing us to create and destroy, raising us above the animal kingdom.

The second generation of Israelites is a post-revelatory generation that comes after the fire, lightning, miracles, and the splitting of the sea. So why is Moshe told to take the rod? The rod could be likened to a transitional object as described by the child psychologist Donald Winnicott. Like a transitional object there is nothing inherently miraculous or divine about the object – to someone else it will appear to be a smelly dirty rag, or an ugly old bunny, but to that person the object represents much more. The rod of Moshe is ‘simply’ a shepherd’s stick – it represents Moshe’s early natural days – the days before the miracles and God. To the people it is the singular object of miracles – of signs – of Gods omnipotence and the battle for minds and hearts against the miracles of the Egyptian magicians. But it needs to go through a transformation for the second generation – it needs to ‘stand on the side’- become of secondary importance. The signs and miracles need to be subjugated to the miracle within the people. The power must be seen to emanate from human words and belief in the power of God through nature rather than an external miraculous object. Like in the process of growth where the object no longer represents the omnipotence of the parent and the relationship between the parent and child transcends the object, so too the people needed to recognise that a mature relationship to God transcends miraculous objects and even miraculous events.  God admonished Moshe and Aaron for failing to believe in Him, linking kedusha (holiness) to language. True belief requires more than a one-dimensional reality, nurturing and interpreting through words and silence. To believe in God or another human being means seeing their complexities and weaknesses and yet still believing in their abilities. Moshe’s lack of belief is not in God, but rather in the people's faith. When God claims: “you failed to sanctify me”, perhaps he is referring to Moshe failure to teach the people that sanctity rests in the human word, acts of kindness, and positive speech rather than in open miracles. Learning Torah is the continuation of the miracles through human dialogue and an eternal conversation throughout generations.  This educational message was subverted through Moshe’s actions. Moshe and Aaron had the opportunity to teach the people the importance of speech, but they failed, and therefore God was not sanctified.

In God's words to Moshe and Aaron, "לא האמנתם בי" – "you did not have faith/trust in Me" – He hints at the concept of a mature faith. Faith based on miracles and the visual is easy; we are more likely to believe something if we can see it. However, true "emunah" requires more than that – it involves trusting in the absolute presence of another, even when they are silent. This trust creates a sacred space where relationships can flourish. It is the space that imagines the other and sees their potential. Moshe and Aaron's failure rested in their inability to imagine the people’s potential. They did not nurture a space for the people to grow in their own journey of emunah. For this reason, the people, in a way had outgrown the old leadership, and needed a different model. A model that is not leaning on the crutch of ‘rod faith’ but rather nurtures a belief in the power of that which transcends the seen.

Sometimes, God's silence in the face of inordinate suffering can challenge our emunah. But a more nuanced understanding of emunah, as we have developed here, reveals that silence does not always signify apathy or inaction. On the contrary, silence can sometimes be a deeper, more profound statement of faith in another than any articulation through language, action, or signs. Sitting with someone in silence can be the greatest expression of trust and love, surpassing the limited power of words.

Shabbat Shalom.

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