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Do you hear the silence?

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
February 13, 2020

When was the last time you experienced pure, absolute silence? No planes or passing cars, just the sound of life doing its thing all around you—the trickle of the stream, the songs of the birds, the wind passing through the trees. These moments of natural silence are immensely rare, and it’s impacting our health. But there are people working to save them from extinction!

How would you define silence?

Have you heard of Gordon Hempton?  He is known as the Sound Tracker and has come up with the following impressive definition – “Silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything”.

How very true! The above quote is the definition of silence from a man who has been traveling around the world recording the vanishing natural sound landscapes for over 37 years.

Sometimes there is so much noise that we are not able to appreciate the silence. At other times we hear the noise but are not prepared to listen to the noise. And I will explain;

Our Parasha is full of sounds.

The Parasha begins with the words Vayishma Yitro – and Yitro heard. As we progress through the Parasha, we again find sounds – this time the sounds of the Shofar and voice of G-d at Har Sinai.

The first Rashi in this week’s Parasha explains why Yitro joined the Jewish people. The Torah says “Vayishma Yitro” and Yitro heard about the miracles of Kriyat Yam Suf and the defeat of Amalek. The Ba’alei Mussar explains that the true translation of Vayishma isn’t “and he heard,” rather it is “and he understood.” Yitro wasn’t the only one to hear about Hashem’s great miracles. Our Sages say that when the waters of the Yam Suf split, all the waters in the world did so as well. Yet Yitro was the only one to understand that these miracles were more than a world-wide message; they were personal as well.

Yitro heard and that made him contemplate;

“If there is a great Creator performing these awesome miracles then I, Yitro, must serve Him and devote my life to that service.” This is what made Yitro so special. When something was clear, he didn’t ignore it, he obligated himself to follow that truth.

We have to listen for the truth, be receptive to it and be able to change who we are based on the messages that G-d is sending us. The art of listening is about shifting our positions and seeing the world from a completely different perspective. Yitro exemplified this ability.

It is in this week’s Parasha that we have the Ten Commandments and how befitting is it that the Parasha is called Yitro. This is to teach us that the starting point to receiving G-d’s Torah is to be a good listener. In fact, often when the Talmud wants to bring a proof of something in the discussion concerning a particular Halachah, it says Ta shma, “come and listen.”

The story is told of a big banker who used to do all the lending in town. He would charge 12% a year. 1% per month. All his customers would use Heter Iska and he had the monopoly over the entire region.

One day he decided to increase by 0.5% a month to 18% a year.

When challenged he told everyone that surely 18 is a great number – it represents Chai – life!

All the merchants were furious.

“Our whole profit margin is 30%.”

“This is really going to eat away at our hard work. We work from 8am-8pm in tough terrain, and you are just sitting down in your office making the money easy. You are killing us. At least keep the interest as it is!”

Their words fell on deaf ears, nothing seemed to help.

A group of merchants decided to go to the great Rabbi of the area and plead with him to knock in some common sense to the lender.

The Rabbi replied that unfortunately he didn’t have much influence on this individual, but he would try and come up with something.

The months past and Yossi, one of the richest people in the area passed away. The Rabbi attended the funeral and gave words of Hesped (eulogy).

As he began to speak he noticed that the lender was in the front row.

He thought to himself that now was the moment he was waiting for to influence the lender to back down and ease of with the interest.

After words of consolation to Yossi’s widow and orphaned children, he turned to the congregation and said; “Yossi was a kind person, someone who gave to everyone. Whoever came into his house starving, left full and satiated.”

The Rabbi noticed the lender shake his head in agreement.

And now the Rabbi pounced on his chance.

“Nothing accompanies a person from this world to the next. Not gold, silver, diamonds, they all stay here. Only good deeds and Torah are the currency in the next world.”

Again the Rabbi noticed the lender nodding and agreeing.

He continued “Yossi gave Tsedaka every day – millions of good angels were created with his kindness. When a person is born their hands are tight fisted, they want to conquer the world, they think it’s all theirs. Yet when they leave the world, the hands are open, symbolising nothing is taken to the next world, not even a penny. My friends remember this and take this to heart. Why focus so much on wealth in this world, we need to focus on what’s really important.”

The Rabbi finished speaking and the burial was complete.

A few minutes later after everyone had gone to wash their hands, the lender approached the Rabbi and said, “Rabbi I have known you for 30 years. I have never heard you speak with such inspiration and meaning. There was not one heart that your words didn’t pierce. Your talk will make a revolution in town. It won’t be the same!”

The Rabbi excited and impressed, wanting to see how the lender will change his ways, replied.

“Thank you, what kind of revolution will my words make?”

The lender replied, “a few months ago I increased the interest payable to 1.5% a month and everyone knocked on my door complaining of hard times. All the merchants over there called me a murderer, selfish person. I am so happy that everyone was here today and heard what you had to say. I mean what do they care if I increased the interest by 0,5% a month, no one will be leaving this world with money in their hand anyway!”

The Rabbi sighed. The lender heard, but he didn’t listen!

How many times do we hear the voice of Hashem yet not listen to the voice of G-d.

Some people have selective hearing. Shamu Amim -The nations of the world heard what happened to the Jews, yet only Yitro heard and acted.

Perhaps the most famous verse in the entire Torah is Shema Yisrael, “Listen Israel”. We should know and understand that Hashem created and takes an active part in this world. He is constantly sending us messages, whether it’s through the noise and commotion of this world, or even through the silence and beauty of His creations.

So as you sit down to rest next time contemplate – with a ratio of 2 to 1 of our hearing apparatus (ears) to our talking gear (mouth), it suggests we should listen twice as much as we speak.

By listening to actions that we don’t have control of, we’re dropping into the world and out of ourselves for a moment. And this does a person good.

Let’s listen and act!

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