silence as bitul

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-mirrorThe difference between self-expression and communication is fairly simple. Self-expression does not require listening or silence, while communication involves both.

It is not a new thing that people would engage in self-expression.  Nevertheless, our age has seen the development of new ways to self-express so easily that it largely replaces communication and consequently limits people’s ability to communicate effectively.


For example, I find that if I ask more than one question in an e-mail I have a 50/50 shot at having more than the first question answered. People do not make the effort to actually read the entirety of the e-mail and respond having fully absorbed what was presented. Another example is that if someone leaves me a voicemail that person has a 50/50 shot at me actually listening to it before I return the call. It’s sad, but true. Add on top of this the unfortunate reality that tweets and facebook updates are common modes for people to “share” what’s going on in their lives without the burden of human interaction and we can see a bad pattern emerging: people are learning new and inventive ways to avoid the voice of the other. I will go so far as to say that this could be the most socially and spiritually damaging development of our day. Why would I seek to hear the voice of God when I’m not patient enough to listen to my voicemail?

Without diligent effort, silence can be utterly eradicated from our lives. Smart phones, laptops, televisions, headphones, blackberries, desktops, billboards, iPads, and iPods are so ubiquitously present in daily life. There’s a whole lot of noise, and not much silence. What we need now is a deliberate invasion of silence. Music used to add texture to the sounds of life. The cry of the oppressed used to shatter the silence of indifference. We need silence to break forth, to shatter the noise that produces numbness, and to help us appreciate the music of life itself. We need to be able to listen to each other speak, to listen to God speaking.

Silence is the middah that balances out the urge to constantly self-express. Silence creates the space necessary to receive from another and make space for one other than the self to exist. Rebbe Nachman taught that the key to bitul (which I define as “other-consciousness”) is in the act of closing one’s mouth and shutting one’s eyes. In silence we can truly appreciate the other who is in our presence. In silence I can listen to my voicemail, choose conversation over texting, and listen for God as much as I speak to Him. May we choose to engage in acts that require our being silent each day so that the dross of self-importance can begin to leave us. Growth in the middah of silence will require us to swim against the stream of the world around us but this will be for the betterment of that same world, lest we become too self-absorbed to care anymore. With that said, I’ll be quiet now…

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