There are so many sounds that it’s often hard to hear, and this can be a big problem, because the first word of the first great commandment is Sh’ma, “hear” or “listen.” We need the backdrop of silence—elusive, ever-more-precious silence—so that we can listen for the voice of Hashem.
Jewish spirituality begins with hearing, with listening, not seeing. It permits no idols and de-emphasizes shrines and holy places. The city of Jerusalem today is filled with holy places, but they are almost all Muslim or Christian; the holiest site in Judaism is a plaza under the open sky, at the foot of the ruins of the ancient wall of the Temple Mount. The distinctive phrase of the Torah is “And God spoke.” Our part is to listen. When Moses reviews the encounter with God at Mount Sinai, he reminds the people, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12). When Moses begs the Lord, “Show me your glory, I pray,” the Lord responds, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, Hashem” (Ex. 33:18 – 19). Moses doesn’t get to see anything, but he hears God pronounce his own name and attributes (Ex. 34:6–7).
Listening is a process, as we gain more understanding of God’s nature over a lifetime. This process contrasts with once-for-all experiential encounters, or visions. These, of course, can be part of spiritual experience; the biblical emphasis, however, is not on seeing but on hearing. We are open to visionary experience, but spiritual life depends upon the practice of listening, of quieting our souls (as well as our surroundings) so we can hear the word of God.
We can’t push back the noisiness of the digital age, but we can combat the noisiness within our own souls. A few minutes of silence before, or in the midst of, our morning prayers can elevate the whole time of prayer, and the rest of the day that follows. I’m not speaking of total silence, which might be impossible, but about a zone of freedom from the ubiquitous inner and outer noise.
Riverton Mussar provides ways to achieve this quiet in its discussions of meditation, and here’s a simple practice that I follow. Sit comfortably in a place where you won’t be disturbed, and which is relatively free from distractions (that is, preferably not at your desk or some other work space). Breathe deeply and slowly (but don’t get weird about it), repeating a word or phrase aloud as you breathe out. I often incorporate the words of the Shema in this practice, dividing it into three parts: (breathe in) Shema Yisrael (breathe in) Adonai Elohenu (breathe in) Adonai Echad. Another three-part phrase is (breathe in) Baruch Atah (breathe in) Adonai Elohenu (breathe in) Melech Ha-Olam. Remember, you say the words as you breathe out, and then breathe in between each phrase, as you focus on words of Scripture or prayer and quiet all other words. Follow this with a moment, or more, of silence, with no words at all, and then continue with your prayers. This practice is a brief visit to the realm of silence, where we can deeply respond to the command, Sh’ma, “Listen, Israel!”