20 December 2007
11 Tevet 5768
Shalom Chaverim, and please forgive the length of this letter – I think I am overcompensating this week for my temporary inability to speak!
Yesterday, as many of you know, I underwent surgery on my vocal chord for a condition that was, thank G-d, not life-threatening, but rather quality-of-life threatening (especially for someone who enjoys using his voice as much as I do). The surgery went well, although the ultimate test will be when I start using my voice again after two short weeks of silence (convenient because it is winter break; inconvenient because I have three young children!). I am deeply grateful to all of your for the prayers and support I have received from the entire community. The outpouring of love and warm wishes is very meaningful to me and speaks to the power of our community. I am home and recovering, feeling well, but with lingering discomfort that is probably commensurate with having a knife down one’s throat for a little over an hour.
Deciding to have this operation on my voice has been a long process for me. My first voice therapist, whom I affectionately refer to as my “voice rebbe,” told me once that “the voice is the window to the soul.” Indeed, my voice struggles and the decision to have surgery have been not only physical and biological struggles, but also profoundly spiritual ones. I have found that the quality of my voice and the difficulty of using it have varied, usually directly, with the overall balance in my life – rest and exercise vs. work, aggressive pushing for change vs. patience, loudness vs. quiet, speech vs. silence. In some ways, I feel blessed that this condition forced me to acknowledge the value of balance, something that I rationally understand, but that I admit I did not internalize growing up.
When I was younger, conversations at the Baker family dinner table mirrored a culture that I think pervades many Yeshivot and universities, and high school classrooms as well. Bold claims, loudness, pace of speech, self-advocacy are often the hallmarks of Jewish and western intellectual discourse, and these verbal and intellectual qualities enable you to participate in, control, and dare I say win “conversations.” From a different perspective, think about the verbosity of Jewish prayer, our siddur, our Amidah. As Jews we are taught to engage other people, and even to turn to G-d and express our spirituality in words, words, words. In prayer, study, and debate, these are often the words of our ancestors, of the Torah, and hopefully of our own personal expression, which can be beautiful and powerful.
Yet I worry, for myself and for our community, that we do not often enough consider the words of Psalm 65:2, which is quoted by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed (I:59) as the highest form of worship: “Lecha Dumia Tehila” – “Silence is praise to you (God).” Both mystical and philosophical traditions acknowledge that our human language is limited and will always ultimately fall short of describing or praising the Divine; thus at some point, we must acknowledge that silence is in fact true praise, the true way to honor the unspeakable and the indescribable presence of G-d. For me, the implications of this quote extend beyond worship to other modes of human expression and communication.
I recently read a quote about the musical genius of Quincy Jones – legendary musician and record producer – that shed light on this mystical, philosophical concept of silence from a musical perspective. “He (Jones) would say . . . let the song talk to you. Get out of the way and leave the room so that God can walk in.” How often in music, or in discussion, do we think that if we just play it or say it again – louder, clearer, differently – we will play it or say it better? I think Quincy Jones teaches us that music (and I would add in interpersonal communication as well) requires hard work, discipline, and repetition; but that we only reach the heights of human expression when we are willing at some point to be quiet, to listen openly and humbly, and to make space for G-d’s “kol d’mama daka” – still, small voice (Kings I, 19:11-12) – to speak.
As I think about Gann Academy and our pluralistic mission, I think about the values and character traits we hope to model and instill in our students, and lately I think a great deal about silence and about listening. This year, I charged our students to “speak boldly, ask genuinely, and listen humbly.” I am thankful to a new member of our faculty and a veteran educator, who immediately pointed out to me that he would have reversed the order of the charge. Our school and our society encourage and reward bold (though not always thoughtful or reflective) speech. In order to cultivate a robust discourse of diverse voices and opinions, we need students, teachers, parents, administrators and board members with strong opinions, who take positions, and who confidently advocate for them.
But as a community, we also need to examine the quality of our discourse and the ways we talk to and listen, or don’t listen, to each other. At the heart of pluralism is the claim that through genuine dialogue among our diverse voices, we will gain greater understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of the Divine. This kind of dialogue will only happen when we embrace both the power of speech and the power of silence, when we stop speaking long enough to listen sensitively to our own inner voices, to the voices of our tradition, and the voices of each other.
For the next two weeks, I have the challenge and the blessing of practicing these difficult habits of mind and heart. May we all continue to refine our abilities to speak our voices boldly and articulately; and, may we also learn to embrace silence and deep listening, when we are alone and, more difficultly, in conversation with each other. This will enable us to, in the words of Quincy Jones, “get out of the way and let G-d walk in.”
Shabbat Shalom and Have a Restorative Winter Break,
Rabbi Marc Baker