We’re not talking about absolute silence—which is difficult to attain, and probably harder to sustain for any amount of time—but about moments of silence, about simply learning to find and develop more quiet in our lives. Jewish tradition provides a framework for reciting the Shema that helps us achieve inner quiet so that we can really hear the great commandment—Hashem alone is our God and we are to love him with all our heart, soul, and resources. In the siddur, the Shema comes after an extended period of thanksgiving, the Pesukei d’Zimra, or Chapters of Song. Then, before reciting the Shema, we say two blessings to prepare further, and then pause, cover our eyes to intensify our focus, and declare the first six words—Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad.
During the Days of Awe and on Hoshana Raba, many congregations recite Psalm 130 between the Pesukei d’Zimra and the recitation of the Shema. Lately I’ve taken to repeating this psalm every morning, even though the Days of Awe are long past, because it helps intensify the silence before repeating the Shema.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. . . .
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning. (Ps. 130:1, 5–6 NRSV)
I don’t imagine the watchmen waiting passively, but gazing intently toward the eastern horizon, awaiting the first hint of silver-gray against the darkness of the night sky. Watching for the morning light strikes me as a great metaphor for meditation. The psalmist says “in his word I hope,” and then goes on to compare that hope with eagerly watching for the dawn. In meditation we don’t wait passively for Hashem to show up or do something, but we wait actively; we pursue silence so that we can more deeply hear his word in which we hope. It’s a paradox, but in some forms of meditation we pursue silence by speaking God’s word repeatedly. Somehow this quiets everything else. (I mention one exercise like this in “Silence in the digital age” under Torah, and Riverton Mussar has lots of other resources to help with this practice as well.)
Just as the watchmen seek out the first hint of dawn in the dark sky, we quiet everything to seek out the first dawn of God’s word in the surrounding darkness. As we obey the mitzvah of reciting the Shema twice each day, we can cultivate inner quiet so that we hear each word deeply and well—Shema Yisrael!