Parshat Beshallach Saturday Morning 2012

Parshat Beshallach

Saturday Morning


  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. Let the celebration begin! Everyone does realize that this weekend will be the Super Bowl, the grand championship of Football. In the United States, Football means something else than how it is defined anywhere else in the world. In the rest of the world, “Football” is what we call Soccer. “American Football” is what the rest of the world calls taking an oblong ball from one side of the field to the other by either running, passing or kicking it down field.

  1. American Football is a very big business in the fall. Millions of dollars change hands in television contracts, player contracts, sponsorships, endorsements and game tickets. The games are played surrounded by tailgate parties before hand, half-time shows in the middle and evaluations by the spectators after the game. It is not kid stuff. There are huge underground betting operations on every game and large betting pools at many businesses. The game itself is just a small part of the business that has grown up around the sport.

  1. If all of this is done for a regular game, we can imagine what must be done for the final grand championship. It takes two full weeks for the media and the fans to get ready to watch the game. Sponsors begin months in advance preparing new and clever commercials to show during the game; commercials which are discussed after the game almost as much as the game itself. All of this adds to the flashing lights, the music, the commentary, the pre game and post game pundits; these all are part of the joyful noise of celebration that leads to and accompanies Super Bowl Sunday.

  1. This is Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. Not because of the Super Bowl nor the halftime show that promises to be a musical extravaganza. This is Shabbat Shira because, in our Parsha, the people of Israel make a miraculous escape from the feared Egyptian army that leaves the people safe on the shore of the sea and in a blink, wipes out the entire army that was in pursuit. For the former slave population, having the Egyptian army, perhaps the source of the greatest terror that they could image, be instantly destroyed in the blink of an eye, that is the definition of a great miracle. It is no wonder the People of Israel, men and women, break out in song and celebration.

  1. We celebrate with noise the beginning of the secular year. We celebrate with noise the Independence Day of our country. We celebrate with noise the festival of Purim as we use our groggers to drown out the name of our enemy. Noise is an important part of our life.

  1. But is there too much noise in our world? It is said that there are very few places you can go in the world anymore and not hear the sound of a motor in the background. It could be a passing car, an air conditioner fan, a lawn mower or an airplane. There is a commercial on television for a car that has a group of men trying to drive to a place that does not have a cell phone signal. All too often, no matter where we may go, out into nature or inside a religious service or musical presentation, we will eventually hear the sound of a cell phone ringing. Certainly there are some sounds that are not so bothersome, like the sound of birds chirping, or crickets, or a babbling brook or the rush of the ocean’s waves.

  1. And yet, there is still so much noise that we are never really able to sit in silence. If we were to find a place that actually had no noise, our ears would need some time to stop hearing sounds that are not really there, the echoes of the noises we try to block out everyday. Our ears do not always know how to process the sound of nothing. If we were to sit in place without any noise at all, would that make us feel any different than we do with all the noise? Which is better, for us to live in our noisy world or to sit in silence? Silence may be nice for a while but would we want to live there?

  1. Rabbi Akiva, in the Mishna makes an interesting observation. He says, “ Silence is a fence for wisdom.” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of New York notes that this is a funny thing for a rabbi to say. After all, rabbinic wisdom is attained and transmitted through words, through the sound of teachers and students talking. Some of you may know that last summer I went on a silent meditation retreat. We didn’t talk for ten days. I had all the time I needed to meditate, to contemplate and listen to the sounds of the world. The only time I really missed speaking was during the time of day allotted for learning. How could it be possible to learn without the give and take between teachers and students? To learn without being able to speak was my least favorite part of the day.

  1. But notice, the great Rabbi Akiva did not say that silence was the SOURCE of wisdom. He did not say that silence is the FOUNDATION of wisdom. He calls silence a fence, a rather unusual metaphor for silence. Maybe we need to think about what a fence is if we are to understand the line between sound and silence.

  1. Does a fence keep things out or does it keep things in? We put our homes behind fences and gates, but is that to keep the danger out of our community or to keep us from crossing out into the dangerous world? Does the fence at the zoo keep the animals in or does it keep the people out? Do prison fences just keep the prisoners in or does it also keep intruders out? There is no real answer to these questions. The answer depends on your perspective; it comes from where you are standing and where you want to go. Is the fence keeping you in or does it keep you out? It all depends on your point of view.

  1. What is Rabbi Akiva trying to tell us? Does the noise of life make learning easier or does it prevent us from acquiring knowledge? On the one hand, we cannot gain wisdom if we are always talking, always making noise. One scholar noted that we have two ears and only one mouth, to teach that we should listen twice as much as we speak. Maybe the silence we encounter is a form of wisdom itself. Maybe we can learn knowledge in speech but then when we encounter the silence, we have the space we need to transform what we know into true wisdom.

  1. Perhaps this is why, at the end of the day, as we lay quietly in our beds, our minds finally have the time to process all that we have learned over the course of a day. In the quiet of the night we are able to put the pieces of our life together and discover if we are building our lives on the path we wish to follow, or if we are being dragged down a path we don’t want to walk. In the silence of the night we find the wisdom to guide our steps the next day, to make sure we are going where we want to go.

  1. The biblical book of Kohelet reminds us that “there is a time for speech and a time for silence.” Sometimes we are required to fill the silence with words and sometimes we need to let the words echo and not say a thing. I am reminded of a pianist who was asked how he could play the notes of the concerto so well. The pianist replied, “I don’t play the notes any better or worse than anyone else. But the spaces between the notes, Ah … That is where the art is found.” the Midrash tells us that Moses received the Torah as black fire written on white fire. The Hasidim teach us that not only do the words and letters of Torah have truth to teach, but so does the spaces between the words. The white, blank spaces of the Torah are also letters and maybe, in the time of the Messiah, we will learn to read the blank spaces and understand the Torah and the mysteries of the Divine in a deeper, more intimate manner.

  1. Judaism is all about this kind of balance. We have many prayers to daven in our service. We have psalms to recite, blessings to give and a Torah to read. We have to declare our faith, twice each day, out loud and in public by reciting Shema Yisroel. But our service also includes an Amidah, a prayer that is said standing and in silence. We use this time to express what is in our hearts that has no sound, that cannot be expressed, the very essence of who we are that we need to offer in humility to God. In speech and in silence, using both, we are able to pray to God.

  1. Similarly, we are able to make all the noise we want for six days of the week, but Shabbat is a time we put the noise of work behind us. There is a story of a King who wanted to find the sweetest sound in the world. He had all kinds of people make all kinds of noise, speaking poetry and making music but in the end it was all noise. Thinking the whole is greater than its parts, he tried having everyone talk and play their instruments at the same time but all he got was a headache. As the sun went down that Friday, a woman came and told everyone to be quiet and she lit her candles for Shabbat. Finally there was silence and that was the sweetest sound of all. On Shabbat we turn off all the motors and devices that bring so mush noise into our lives and we find ourselves and we find God in the silence of Shabbat.

  1. It seems that there is a time for the Super Bowl and a time for quiet reading. There is a time for a symphony or a rock concert, and a time for listening to the birds singing in the early morning dawn. There is a time to watch fireworks exploding in the sky and there is a time to sit quietly and contemplate the stars. There is a time for watching politicians debate the issues of our world and a time to sit in the library in silence. There is a time to tell our beloved the many ways in which we love them and a time to just gently hold their hand.

  1. Which side of the fence can wisdom be found? I guess it depends on what side you are on and on what is on the opposite side. There is wisdom to be found in watching a football game and there is wisdom to be found in the study of Torah. It all depends on how you use the sounds and how you use the silence.

May God give us many reasons to rejoice loudly and many reasons to enjoy the silence and may we be blessed to find the wisdom in both as we say …


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