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Rosh HaShanah I 5782: A time for speech, a time for silence

September 8, 2021

Lately, words have become a challenge. Halfway through expressing a thought, I change my mind, forget the point of what I was trying to say, or lose track of the appropriate word to describe my opinion or emotion. Often, I will start speaking and then realize that in this particular moment, the absence of my voice would have been much more expressive, much more powerful than its unmindful presence. As someone who grew up as a musical theater kid and as someone who has often compensated for her small size with an active voice, I am now becoming more acquainted with the power of pausing, listening, and considering before speaking. As Kohelet - Ecclesiastes - teaches, Eit lahasot v’et l’daber, there is a time for silence and a time for speaking. Taking that time to consider which makes the greater impact - speaking or silence - makes all the difference in communication, whether with friends, strangers, loved ones, or even our adversaries.

Beyond his simple comment - a time for speaking and a time for silence - Kohelet brings God into his conversation about conversation. “Keep your mouth from being rash,” Kohelet teaches, “and do not let your throat be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; that is why your words should be few” (5:1). Just a few verses later, “Do not let your mouth bring guilt upon your flesh, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake - but fear God; else God may be angered by your voice and destroy the work of your hands” (5:5). Our speech is not just witnessed by those people to whom we speak, but also, by God directly. Whether we speak words of compassion or rebuke, truth or deception, we will see the direct consequences in the physical, relational, and emotional world around us. Next week,  in our Vidui (our confessional prayer), we will reflect on the great hurt that speech can do:

 ...על חט שחטאנו לפניך

For the wrongdoings we have committed before You, God, through the utterance of lips, through speaking of the mouth, through verbal confession, through foolish talk, through through impurity of lips, through false denial and false promise, through slander, through the prattle of our lips, and through gossip. 

But no matter how many times we beat our chest over this High Holy Day season, no matter how many people we call to ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur, our misdeeds in speech still leave their mark in those we hurt.

When we “let our throats be quick to bring forth speech,” we often overlook the damage we can cause with our words. Even when our words are not so damaging, we could often express our ideas in ways that are much more meaningful if we just take an extra moment to think before we open our mouths. When we take that time to pause and form our words, we take the time to think about the goals of our words, the most precise words we can use to achieve our goals, and whether our words are even necessary. Every time we pause before speaking, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, “Am I speaking in order to make a point or to offer comfort? Am I speaking in order to redirect the conversation to a safer territory or to rebuke or reprimand? Am I speaking to clarify the other person’s words, or to let them know that they are understood, that they are not alone? Or am I speaking to show off, to establish dominance, or to start a fight? Perhaps, my goal in speaking may be better served if I stay silent and listen, instead.” We give ourselves time to formulate exactly the words we want to say, as concisely as we need to say them. By slowing our speech, we also allow ourselves to take stock of who is in the room, assessing whether our words may be helpful or hurtful for this particular audience, with their particular emotions.

More importantly, when we pause from speaking, we allow ourselves time to not think about the next words to come out of our mouths. At each moment in which we are not speaking, we allow ourselves the chance to listen, to learn another person’s story or perspective. We show them respect and care by actively refraining from speech, and later - only later, by incorporating their sentiments and ideas into our responses. For some of us, it may not be easy, but it is vital for us to actively try not to think about the next words we will say - instead, we train all of our attention on understanding the words currently being spoken.

When I think about intentional, limited speech, I think about some of the rules for debate as outlined in Roberts’ Rules of Order, the guidelines we use to facilitate our board meetings at Agudath Achim: 

You may speak in debate twice on any debatable motion...You cannot, while someone is still speaking, try to signal that you want to speak next. You must wait until the person who is speaking finishes and sits down before standing and seeking the chance to speak…[and] someone who has not yet spoken on [a motion] even once has a preference over anyone who has already spoken on it” (30). 

During a discussion, even one we may not consider a “debate,” we can keep track of how many times we are speaking, compared to the others present in the room. If I am the type of person who knows I will want to speak more than once, I may wait until a couple of others have given their input before I enter the conversation. We can also notice who in the room has not given their input and ask for their thoughts. Some may not be speaking because of strong emotions, some may just be trying to listen, and some may just be waiting for a moment of silence in which to add their piece. 

Before I moved here, I learned a valuable lesson about the South that mirrors Roberts’ Rules, that interruption is seen as unacceptable. Having grown up on the West Coast, it has been an adjustment and a breath of fresh air to experience conversations in which people allow each other to finish their thoughts, to process before and after speaking. We must also recognize that waving hands to indicate a readiness for response can also act as an interruption and distraction, taking our own and others’ focus away from the person sharing their story or opinion. When we allow and encourage others in the room to speak for as much or more time than us, we show them our respect for their ideas and opinions.  

For those of us for whom silence can feel uncomfortable, we can even accustom ourselves to the absence of sound outside of a conversation space. We can practice through a regular meditation or prayer practice, turning off the TV while doing dishes, or turning off the radio on a drive to Kroger. Once we re-enter conversation, that space of silence will allow ourselves and others time to refine our words, will indicate that we are, truly, listening, and will give space to those who may not often get a word in.

But of course, we are a tradition that finds great power in speech. The Talmud, one of our most sacred texts, is formatted as an intergenerational debate spanning hundreds of years. In yeshivot, students learn by reading and analyzing a text out loud; a beit midrash - one can often judge the vibrance of a Jewish study hall by its volume. Our Torah tells us not to hold our anger inside, but rather, to rebuke (Lev. 1:17). And in Pirkei Avot, the great Rabbi Hillel teaches us not to wait to stand up for ourselves and others:

הוא היה אומר אם אינ אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי?

If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14).

Even with its warnings against too much speech, our tradition begs us to use our words. We cannot accomplish mitzvot such as visiting the ill, studying Torah, judging fairly, and building a righteous society without verbal expression. And our loved ones, friends, family, and society cannot fully know what we need, or want, or are feeling without our own clear communication. The challenges lie in determining how much, when, why, and how we speak. 

While our ideal is to practice mindful speech everywhere, at all times, we can at least start in this building. In classes and committee meetings, for those of us who know we tend to speak up more than others in the room, we can practice limiting ourselves to one or two comments before everyone else has had their chance. In this synagogue space, we can practice not raising hands until the current speaker has finished her sentence or come to a complete pause. And for those of us who normally enjoy maintaining our peace, we can practice rebuking when we disagree with another person present, and we can express a strong opinion or two in a class or discussion. Just as much as our conversations in this synagogue space are for the sake of learning about Jewish tradition and practice, our conversations can also be for the sake of learning about conversation itself. At Agudath Achim, we can be open with one another about words that hurt or heal and about how to bring our wisdom in communication outside of this building.

Since joining this community two years ago, I have heard and expressed words in entirely new ways - words of comfort and words to celebrate, words to support and words to rebuke, words to teach and words to question. In those two years, I have found new meaning in a verse that appears in every Amidah:

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון ליבי לפניך ה׳ צורי וגואלי

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer.

God, may my words today make a difference; may they be respectful and wise. And may the balance between my open expressions and thoughts I keep in my heart be appropriate to you and meaningful to Your world. May the words of all of us here in this room and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable before You, Adonai, our rock and our redeemer. L’Shanah Tovah.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784