One of the current terms of religious discussion that I’ve grown to suspect is “spirituality.” I’m tired of hearing people say, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” which often means I don’t have any outward signs of religious or transcendent life, but, trust me, I possess many lofty sentiments. In this sense, spirituality refers to something that can’t be measured and might have little bearing on how we actually live. Mussar, of course, is a great remedy to this sort of spirituality. The middah of silence might easily be drawn into collusion with this kind of spirituality, but Mussar restores the balance, usually by drawing upon the wisdom of Scripture.
I find myself increasingly able to tune out the world around me. I find I don’t always need a quiet space to think clearly, pray, or meditate. In fact, I meditate quite often on long bus trips.
I tend to be a quiet guy, always desiring to choose my words carefully. I suppose part of this is influenced by people I've met journeying through life who have a lot to say but tend not to deliver.
He was as careful in his speech as in his actions. It goes without saying that he refrained from whatever was prohibited by the halachah.
For this we have Rabbi Israel [Salanter's] own testimony. Upon reproving one of his disciples for his words, Rabbi Israel [Salanter] remarked: "Insofar as evil gossip (lashon hara) is concerned, you cannot tell me, 'Remove a beam from between your eyes,' and, it seems, not with respect to idle chatter either."
But even in speech that is permitted, he avoided superfluous verbiage and would weigh and count his words to make them conform to standards of propriety and refinement. One of the scholars of the generation observed on a specific occasion: "Rabbi Israel [Salanter] does not squander words. Every sound or word that issues from his mouth is first considered and reflected on. He purifies them like a silver smelter and weighs them in a chemical balance." -- The Mussar Movement Volume 1, Part 2 page 197
Silence is a powerful thing that can be good or bad. If you see a crime being committed and someone being hurt or killed and you keep silent, it is sinful. How many people stood by and watched the Nazi brutes beat up, and haul away Jewish men, women, and children? How many kept silent as Jews went to their deaths? Standing by and saying nothing was wrong.
When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).
Silence is the last thing we’d expect in heaven—the scene of unending worship and praise.
When you make a vow to the Lord, your God, you shall not delay in paying it, for the Lord, your God, will demand it of you, and it will be [counted as] a sin for you. But if you shall refrain from making vows, you will have no sin. (Deuteronomy 23:22, 23)
It can be an easy thing to treat our failed promises as mistakes that we try to make up, as opposed to outright “sins.” A close friend of mine once told me that saying you will do something and failing is not much different than saying you did something when you didn’t. It seems, at least in our society, that we treat the latter as a lie while the former is more forgivable (even if unfortunate).
Here is where silence comes in. If we don’t promise to do something we cannot do, we are not liable. This is the point of the above verses from Deuteronomy. We oughtn’t use this as an excuse to be excessively noncommittal, but it does caution us to not be so loose-lipped as to promise what we cannot.
Silence is a guard against words that harm others and ourselves. In this way silence is like a precious gift that God gives us to keep us from overstepping our bounds. It can be difficult to keep promises. When one really thinks about the number of things that need to fall in place in between the promises we make and the fulfillment of them it can be rather overwhelming. So let us guard our tongues from saying anything other than what we absolutely mean and absolutely intend to fulfill with caution, and with God’s help.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend one of the last public appearances of one of the most renowned philosophers of the last half of the 20th century. At the outset there must have been 3000 academics, philosophers and theologians who assembled in the auditorium in Toronto to hear the famous man.