Listening to Silence – Shemini 5776

When I arrived in Pittsburgh last summer, my family and I took one of the duck-boat tours of downtown. At one point, the tour guide was interrupted by an excessively noisy truck that was passing by, so he diverted momentarily from his canned speech to remark, “We have very loud trucks here in Pittsburgh.” The engineer in me began to wonder if the trucks here were louder than they were anywhere else, and if so, why would that be? Is it because of the air? The confluence of two rivers somehow metaphysically amplifying the sound waves? Echoes from nearby coal mines?

We live in a world that is blessed with much noise, and I am pretty certain that it’s getting noisier, perhaps mostly because of our digital devices. The various notifications, the constant ringtones, people talking at full volume in public places, and so on. Add to this all the noisy things that are vying for our attention: advertisers, celebrities, politicians are all trying to steal our focus. I suspect that the noise is as cacophonous in our heads as it is in our work and play spaces; considering the way that life has been accelerated by the Information Age, the constant interruption makes for difficulty in concentration.

When might we enjoy a wee bit of quiet? I find that it’s increasingly difficult to find respite.

John Cage, excerpt from 4’33” (1952)
Excerpt from 4’33”, by composer John Cage

Silence makes a rather dramatic appearance in Parashat Shemini. Following the mysterious, sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), the Torah states, in a terse, removed voice (Leviticus 10:3, Etz Hayim p. 634):

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן

Vayiddom Aharon.

Aharon was silent.

He has just witnessed the brutal death of his two sons, and he is struck dumb. The Torah doesn’t usually make note of silence; Avraham and Yitzhaq walk together for three days, barely speaking, on the way to the mountain where the father has been instructed to offer up his son, but the Torah never says “Vayiddom Avraham.”

So why here is Aharon silent? What could be going through his head? What does he hear in that painful, absolute quiet?

There are, of course, many possibilities. Rashi says that he receives a reward for his silence: a private word from God; a communication for his ears only.

I like that idea – it is in silence that we might hear God’s voice, the qol demamah daqqah described in the haftarah we read for Parashat Pinehas (I Kings 19:12), the still, small voice (so King James) that the prophet Eliyahu hears only after the mighty wind, the shattering rocks, the earthquake and the fire have all passed by. It is only when we can tune out all of the tremendous noise all around us, not only that which our ears can detect, but all of the other noises of life, the messiness of all the relational challenges we face, the barrage of promotional messages with which we are constantly assaulted, that we can hear that qol demamah daqqah.


Last year, there was a wonderful article in Harper’s Magazine about silence. Well, actually, the article was about the search for neutrinos, which are a type of subatomic particle that is particularly hard to pin down. (I have actually been waiting for a whole year for Parashat Shemini to show up again to use this!) Neutrinos pass through all types of matter without apparently affecting it. The Sun produces many, many neutrinos and sends them our way – we are all constantly being bathed in them – 65 billion per square centimeter per second. That’s an awful lot of extraordinarily tiny particles flowing right through us at all times.

And scientists have an interest in learning more about neutrinos, particularly because they are believed to be a component of so-called dark matter. But it’s kind of hard to learn anything about them when they pass through everything virtually unaffected. How do you measure something that you can’t isolate, and doesn’t interact with anything? One must concede that this is an essential question, not only about neutrinos, but also about how we understand God.

Now here’s the interesting part. In order to understand neutrinos, physicists have created listening stations, with the goal being to create an environment that is as “quiet” as possible. Not just the kind of silence you find in a recording studio, say, or deep in the stacks of a large library, but silence from all of the forms of energy that surround us at all times: radio waves and light waves and all forms of electromagnetic radiation and particles and rays and so forth. Utter, complete silence.

To do this, the neutrino detectors have to be located deep in the Earth, far away from all that noise. The article in Harper’s told of one such listening station, called the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), in Lead, South Dakota.

Almost one mile underground, SURF is a good place to detect neutrinos because it is shielded from all the other noise of the universe. The author of the article in Harper’s, Kent Meyers, describes what this search evoked for him:

I began to think of neutrinos and dark matter as whispers: the most intimate messages of the universe’s voice, carrying its closest secrets to ears that are all but deaf — or, perhaps more accurately, immune, because so other-natured.

Meyers speaks of the voice of dark matter in almost Divine terms.

With Earth itself as part of the instrument, underground labs simply receive. Designed into them is the knowledge that everything floats on a sea. And then there is the tank of water, and deep within it, the core of transparent xenon. The method of an underground lab is less-from-too-much. One feels that lovely lessening in spite of all the money invested — science as introversion and withdrawal, setting up the conditions of silence and waiting for the smallest voice of the universe, the voice of its conception. It’s this poetry I appreciate, the womb of the universe in its dark bigness, its amniotic sea of particles touching that smaller womb we have recognized our tiny Earth to be.

He stops short of using explicit God language. Nonetheless, Meyers casts the Earth as cosmic shield, a protective envelope to which we might retreat in order to find answers to the seminal questions of what we are, the fundamental nature of the universe and ultimately life. To understand Creation, we must return, in some sense, to the first day, in the dark, a quiet that the universe has not known since the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy, Blessed One, said, “Yehi or.” Let there be light (Gen. 1:3).

The Large Underground Xenon dark matter experiment at SURF

What I find so compelling about Meyers’ piece is the idea of blocking everything out so that one might only “hear” that qol demamah daqqah, a still, small voice. The voice of the neutrino must be something similar to that of God – passing through us at all times, and yet nearly impossible to hear.

And as if that were not enough, the article takes it one step further into the theological realm:

What if we have arrived at knowledge that we cannot mine or turn into something — arsenic, dynamite, trucks — that helps us mine something else and in so doing produces, always, another thing we cannot get our minds around? What if dark matter and neutrinos are so out of reach that all we can do is think about them, not manipulate or change them or mix them into new combinations? Of the many revolutions science has offered us — and challenged us with — that could be the quietest and the largest and the most interesting of all.

When I read this article a year ago, my mind immediately went to our yearning to conceive God. Perhaps this is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s sense of wonder, that is, how we react to God in awe, struck by the grandeur of the Divine nature and ascending higher in holiness as we contemplate the Infinite. Or perhaps Martin Buber’s Unconditional Thou. We may have intimate knowledge of a Presence that affects us deeply and personally, and yet we cannot manipulate it or even acknowledge it in human terms, because it is constantly, immediately there.

The search for dark matter evokes our natural desire to listen for and express the ineffable, to uncover the quiet layer of Shekhinah, the lowest emanation of the Kabbalistic Godhead, but we can only do so when it is set against the completely black backdrop of nothingness.

To some today, perhaps the inclination is to give up listening. Why spend the time and money and energy looking for something that may never be heard. To others among us, though, we still hope that a neutrino-like-voice will continue to offer us guidance and hope, love and reassurance.

Perhaps we’ll eventually hear that private message from God, the one that will only come when we have successfully blocked out all the other noise. Meanwhile, keep listening.

Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/2/2016.)

One reply on “Listening to Silence – Shemini 5776”

Brilliant and thought-provoking as always, Rabbi. Thank you. Having grown up in some often stressful, noisy environments with little opportunity for private time and contemplation, the rare incidents of silence took on immeasurable value for me became it became the island on which I could best function psychologically and creatively. Your comments lead me to wonder if the traditional calls for ‘Moshiach’ often heard in Hasidic conversation are really cries for that absolute silence that we crave amidst all the noise we have created.

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