Just a few verses before this one, John, the seer of Revelation, describes “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had heard an even greater outpouring of praise:
Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).
Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about? We get a clue in the next verse, which is also a clue to our own practice of silence: “When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and they were given seven shofars” (Rev. 8:1–2, CJB). Silence prepares the heavenly scene for the sound of the shofar, which is about to announce God’s judgment upon an unrepentant humanity.
The shofar-blast of judgment, its call to return to God, can be truly heard only when other sounds are silenced. We hear God’s voice most fully when other voices are still.
I’m writing this during the month of Elul, whose traditions include a daily sounding of the shofar, as a signal to prepare for the High Holy Days, when the shofar will be a dominant theme. In Hilchot Teshuvah, Rambam tells us what the shofar is saying at this time:
Awake, O sleepers, from your sleep! Arouse yourselves, O slumberers, from your slumber! Scrutinize your deeds! Return with contrition! Remember your Creator! . . . Peer into your souls; improve your ways and your deeds. Each of you should abandon his evil ways and his bad thoughts.
This is the message of Elul and the High Holy Days, and the same Jewish tradition that tells us to sound the shofar on those days insists that it’s not normally sounded at any other time. The shofar’s voice at Elul is enhanced by the silence that preceded it. And during holy days when the shofar is sounded, we’re to reduce all the other voices that normally fill our ears.
We can bring silence into our daily practice, not only during Elul, but throughout the year, as we learn to sit (or stand, kneel, or lie) quietly in God’s presence. It’s a simple practice of shutting down the computer, silencing the iPhone, closing the books, and being still, at least for a few moments at a time. Of course, the mental noise might continue, and we can address that with practices of meditation that are described elsewhere in Riverton Mussar. For now, my point is simple: the voice of the shofar—the voice that puts the world on notice and calls us back to the Lord and his ways—is preceded by silence. Such silence is not just the absence of sound, but preparation to hear the voice of God.