The Sound of Silence

The sages say that words are not as important as deeds. Some famous man once said “’Well done’ is always a better compliment than ‘well said’”. Even if you can defend yourself with words, having done well is a lot better than having the right words. But more than that, the sages spoke about the virtue of refraining from speech. As Reb Shimon, the Mishnaic sage, said “all my life I grew among the sages and I found nothing better for the body than silence.”

But the Rebbe pointed out something very interesting: When Reb Shimon makes his statement about the value of silence, why did he preface it with a mention of his background growing up among the sages? Surely, he doesn’t need to convince us that his opinions are worthy of attention. None of the other sages do that.

The Rebbe explained that when Reb Shimon said “all my life I grew up among the sages” he wasn’t just talking about his background; he was talking about himself. He was saying “I’ve spent my entire life among the sages, but I never stopped growing.” Even as an old man, he was still growing and learning and never stopped being a student. He was saying “All my life I grew, and even at an old age I continued to grow and learn from the sages.”

And so, after a lifetime of growth among the sages, Reb Shimon tells us that the most important thing he learned was that there is “nothing better for the body than silence.”

But Reb Shimon wasn’t talking about just biting your tongue, Reb Shimon’s statement is cosmic.

What Reb Shimon discovered over a lifetime of learning was that there are two ways in which we are supposed to fix the world and elevate it to its godly potential.

One way is to recognize the value of physical life in the physical universe, but also to be conscious of the divine. With this method, one can recognize material pleasures while also acknowledging the value of Torah and Mitzvot. The second approach is to live with the attitude that the physical world is not really important at all. According to this approach, there is no value to eating, to money, to business. There’s no value to it at all unless it serves a divine purpose.

When God created the physical world, he did it with words. God said “Let there be” and there was. But even though those words continue to give life to the world, it is not apparent to human beings. When we see the world, we don’t see the word of God, we just see stuff. Changing this is precisely our job in the world. Elevating the world and perfecting it means to reveal the Word of God that is in everything. When we do that, the world becomes a godlier world. When the creation is conscious of its creator it’s a better world.

So the first method of fixing the world recognizes the importance of the world, but also acknowledges that it will be a lot better if it recognizes its creator, so we serve God in such a way that people will come to know and recognize “who said and the world came to be.”

When we do this, it’s called “Speech”. On a spiritual level, “speaking” means making the Word of God felt and known in the world.

The second method relates to a deeper way of understanding how God creates and sustains the universe. On a deeper level, God doesn’t speak the world into existence, he thinks it. For example, the universe of course exists on Shabbat, but it’s not as physical as during the week. This is because during the week God creates the world with words while on Shabbat God creates the world with thought. By keeping the world in his thoughts, the world continues to exist.

The difference between thought and speech is that thought is personal while speech on the other hand is interpersonal. Speech is for others. Thought is for yourself. That’s why thought is much closer to the soul than speech. When you’re alone, you don’t have to speak because speech is not for you. It’s only necessary when there’s someone else that you need to communicate with. But thought is closer to the soul. It’s for yourself. A “holy day” means, the universe’s existence is drawn a little closer to the creator.

The second way of elevating the world is by going into the level of thought. We don’t want to reveal the Word of God, we want to reveal the thoughts of God. God said “let there be light,” but we want to know what he was thinking. What does he need light for? What is God’s purpose?

It’s not enough to reveal to the world the Word of God that makes the grass and the animals. That’s good, but it’s not good enough. Looking at a sunset and saying “there’s the word of God!” is good, but it’s not enough. We want to reveal to the world God’s thoughts, God’s intention.

While functioning on the level of thought, words are not important, and that’s what Reb Shimon called “silence”. Reb Shimon was saying, “all my life I grew among the sages, and I discovered there are two ways to be holy. One is to see the importance of the universe and improve on it by revealing the Word of God, and the other is to see no importance at all in the physical universe, the only important thing being to ask ‘what does God want with his universe?’ the first level is called speech, the second level is called silence.’

What Reb Shimon was saying has cosmic impact. He’s not just saying “don’t talk!” He’s telling us to get to know “The Thought,” be busy with “The Thought.”

Reb Shimon teaches us that he grew up among the sages and found nothing better for the body than silence. Meaning, revealing The Word of God in the universe (the “body”) is good, but the best thing is to reveal The Thought of God.

In other words, to make this world great, it’s not enough to see how the world is connected to God’s words, we must know how we fit into God’s plan and the purpose that God has in mind.

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