A Voice of Silence

Infinite darknessAllow me to relate a story a friend of mine tells about one of his early childhood experiences. This is how he relates the event:

“When I was about four years old, I awoke from my nap one day, ventured out of my room, and walked through the house. No one was there. I tentatively called out for my mother, but there was no reply. Slowly, a realization dawned on my little mind: ‘It’s finally happened. My parents have abandoned me…’

“I raced to the phone on the kitchen wall and dialed the operator. ‘That’s it,’ I told her, between sobs, ‘my parents are gone; I’m all alone now.’ The operator stayed on the phone with me until, sure enough, my mother did come home. She had slipped out for a few minutes to pick up some milk. It was, however, an experience I shall never forget.”

Now, if you will, perform a little mental exercise. Imagine for a moment that you are four years old. Your parents are everything to you. Consider the terror you would feel thinking they have abandoned you, leaving you to somehow manage life on your own. Of course, as an adult, you know that this would never happen. However, as a child, you would not have known this. The threat would have seemed real. How does that terror feel?

-David Fohrman
“Holy Days: A Relationship with God”
Torah.org

So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.I Kings 19:11-12 (NASB)

In his book God in Search of Man (page 186), Abraham Joshua Heschel says the words translated as “a sound of a gentle blowing” (more commonly translated as “a small, still voice”) in Hebrew are literally “a voice of silence”. It was as if Elijah heard something and yet nothing at all. Does “silence” make a sound?

We know from the larger narrative in I Kings that Elijah felt very much alone and abandoned, and that he expected to die, either by the hand of his pursuers or by God’s. Like David Fohrman’s “abandoned” four-year old, how many of us feel abandoned and alone because we think God has left us and because of God’s “voice of silence”?

In Judaism it is believed that God opens the Book of life on Rosh Hashanah and closes it again at the end of Yom Kippur. Between those two events, there are ten days of teshuvah; ten days in which a Jew still has time to turn from his sins, abandon them completely, throw himself at the feet of God, and beg that his name be inscribed in the Book for another year. Right now, we are in the middle of those ten days.

But how would he know? Unless God explicitly reveals to the person that his name has been written in the Book of Life, how would he know, except for the fact that day by day, he doesn’t die? Where is the voice of God when call to Him and ask, “Have You written me in the Book?”

If you are a Christian, you probably think such concerns are ridiculous or at least misplaced. You’ve been taught that once you were saved when you initially accepted Jesus, your salvation was secure and your place in Heaven was carved in stone. Of course, none of that means you can’t die at any second or that you don’t carry some burden of sins from one day to the next. Christians tend to take salvation for granted and even get a little lazy in their “Christian walk” from time to time (Christian blogger Antwuan Malone commented on this a few days ago).

How do we know when we’re forgiven? How does God reveal this to us? Do we even understand when He is speaking? For that matter, how did the great prophets of old such as Moses know when God was speaking? It certainly seemed a mysterious process to Elijah. Was it also a mystery at Sinai?

“It is very difficult to have a true conception of the events at Sinai, for there has never been before nor will there ever be again anything like it.” (Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, Book II, ch. 33) “We believe,” says Maimonides, “that the Torah has reached Moses from God in a manner which is described in Scripture figuratively by the term ‘word,’ and that nobody has ever known how that took place except Moses himself to whom that word reached. -Heschel, pg 185

We may sometimes feel absolutely certain we have heard from God, but articulating that experience to others is almost impossible, probably for the same reasons Heschel believes that we will never understand the experience of Moses at Sinai or at the burning bush. He goes on to say (pg 185):

This is why all the Bible does is to state that revelation happened; how it happened is something they could only convey in words that are evocative and suggestive.

Stand aloneHeschel shoots down the hopes and dreams of many Bible literalists by stating that the “surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally” (pg 178) and that we do not give the Bible or God what is owed by interpreting the words literally because we almost always impart an understanding that “would be a partial, shallow understanding; because the literal meaning is but a minimum of meaning.” In other words, the Prophets, and the Apostles most likely didn’t exaggerate their claims but simply described the ineffable experience of God within the inadequate limits of human language. God, after all, is so much more than what the Bible could possibly contain.

Meanwhile, here we are, trapped in the ten days of teshuvah and waiting for the silent and elusive voice of God. Here we are, trapped on Earth in a mortal life, struggling with sin, hardship, and sometimes tragedy, begging for God to answer our cries, pleading with Him not to leave us alone and defenseless in a harsh and cold universe. What Jews experience within the ten days, should be what rest of us experience in the course of our lives:

Herein lies a connection to the above concepts. Our Sages describe the days preceding Yom Kippur with the verse: “Seek G-d while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.” At this time, everyone has the potential to feel close to G-d, and therefore the Arizal says: “If a person does not cry during the Ten Days of Teshuvah, his soul is not complete.” Reading Parshas Haazinu before Yom Kippur highlights the fact that each of us is “close to the heavens.”

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Close to the Heavens”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 415;
Vol. IX, p. 204; Vol. XX, p. 266
Chabad.org

Faith is believing God is near when we cannot perceive Him. Faith is knowing that God is speaking even when we can hear only a complete and total silence. Faith is a four-year old waking up from a nap, finding himself home alone, but knowing his mother will be right back. But like a four-year old home alone, crying for his mother and hearing no reply, how can we help but believe that we really have been abandoned, even when faith tells us we’re not? Even if we experience an unexplanable “something”, how do we know it is God except that faith guides us to believe?

The word of God is not just information and it is not just comfort, it is the very air we breathe and the very food that sustains us:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” –Matthew 4:4 (Deut. 8:3)

In the absence of the words of God, we are not only alone and terrified, but we are starving and gasping for our last breath!

The revelation of God is a paradox. He is near because His Word is near, but He is also a God with a voice that is silence and who dwells in unknowable darkness.

The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad;
let the distant shores rejoice.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. –Psalm 97:1-2

God made Himself known to the Children of Israel violently and in raging fire at Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:11) yet spoke in less than a whisper to Elijah and somehow, He speaks to us, though we may not ever hear Him.

“Every intelligent person knows” that when the Bible asserts that the people saw and heard the voice at Sinai, it does not refer to a “perception by the eye” or “a perception of the ear,” but to a spiritual perception. -Heschel pg 188

A man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. –1 Corinthians 2:14

HopeThe only way we can experience God is through His Spirit for without it, we are blind and deaf, though God may be “shouting”. In the ten days of teshuvah, Jews stand apart from the din of the world and listen for the “small, still voice,” straining to hear God speaking while He turns the pages of the Book of Life. We shudder in fear and awe at any sound that may be Him writing our name into that Book. Even a Christian knows that there will be a day of reckoning when the Book will be opened and then closed one final time and our fate will be sealed within. A Jew does not take for granted that all is secure, even though he may pray three times daily while facing Holy Jerusalem. While we believers are certain of the grace of Christ, why should our confidence turn into arrogant presumption? Let us also tremble before God, for we cannot know ourselves and our lives as He knows us. And we cannot know Him as He knows Himself.

Christianity has no time in its calendar like the Days of Awe. Not even the passion of Easter approachs it; when man and God become almost inseparably close, though for man, it still feels as if the expansive gulf of the universe stands between us and Him. God will never abandon us, but we can be far from Him. Imagine you had only ten days to somehow bridge the immense gap between human beings and the Divine. Impossible? Do you feel the terror welling up inside of you at the prospect? What will you do? Where will you look? How will you know when God is close? What will His voice “sound” like?

We must look, but not with our eyes. We must listen, but not with our ears. We must reach out, but not with our hands.

He is speaking. But His voice is silent and His light shines in unbroken darkness.

Reach for hope. He is coming.

Even now – the word of Hashem – return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with lamentation. Rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to Hashem your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and He relents of evil. Whoever knows, let him repent and regret. and it will leave a blessing behind it, for meal-offering and libation to Hashem your God. –Joel 2:12-14 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

6 thoughts on “A Voice of Silence”

  1. One of the most profound things I hold on to in life is this: Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. I think sometimes Christians get “lazy” because they know their Father well enough to know that they will never be abandoned, even when it seems like the Father has left for some reason. I struggle daily with the fact that I sin, and that sin is really bad. Sin is bad enough to cause things like death, like the holocaust. I’ve done things in my life that are unforgivable, because even if they weren’t as bad as someone else’s sin, I have allowed evil to increase in this world. Yet all my sins have been forgiven. Is this cause to continue to sin? As Paul says in Romans, “may it never be!”.

    You are right, I don’t worry that my name is or is not written in the Book of Life. That is because my name is there only because of what the Messiah has done for me, not because of any action of my own. This is a great season to remember once again, how great is my salvation. How, when Jesus said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you, even to the end of the age.”, he means those words to apply to me. I must choose to believe, and act like those words are true even though I don’t feel them, or else to doubt and suffer all the consequences of that doubt.

    The only way to follow the path of truth is to believe the truth about who we are and who HaShem is. We are basically evil, until we have been born again, made fresh and new. And even after we have become a new creation, yet that creation still struggles with sinful desires, and the penchant to follow those desires. Faith, belief in the Lord who gives us grace daily, is the only way to overcome those things within us that cause us to sin.

    When I have found myself having to repent for something really awful, I have heard the voice of the Lord telling me, “You were not created for that.” It was a voice of sorrow, not of condemnation. This love causes me to turn away from sin and to become the new creation that I have been created to become. It breaks through the self-deception and the self-justification, and allows the truth about the sin (the fact that it is really evil), to prevail.

    And so we come to those places where we hear the voice of silence. We hear nothing, we see nothing. I am learning to trust to the fact that the Lord is still speaking, even when I can’t seem to hear. That I have never been abandoned, even when I feel like it. The One we serve and worship has promised to never leave us. I am discovering that it is my choice to believe in His word, or not. It is difficult. There are times when I feel that the silence is my fault. I have sinned, I have fallen short. Why would a just and holy G0d have anything to do with me? Why shouldn’t He be angry with me? I have allowed yet more evil to reside in this world. How can my name still be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? The truth is, if anything, any part, of my salvation depends on me, then it will never happen. It can’t.

    So the words, “I will never leave you.” Were spoken as truth even while I yet a sinner, in fact, before I was alive. Yet they are true words, and the reason they were spoken was because of G0d’s ability to carry them out. Not because of any ability of mine to make it happen, or to cause it not to happen. It doesn’t depend on me, it can’t. I have seen my righteousness, my worthiness, and it is unrighteous, unworthy. So if I’m to depend on His mercy, then I must depend on His mercy for everything. I must recognize when I stand before Him, that nothing good, nothing righteous, came of myself. It has always come from Him because there is no other source for it.

    And then I come to recognize that silence might be a test to see whether or not I truly believe. Or else it is the silence of old friends, who don’t need words to confirm their fellowship. They know the other will always be there, because they are old friends.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful and inspiring comments, Dree. I have no doubt that the Father cherishes your name and that you are written in His Book of Life. I don’t always understand the silence of God. Sometimes He doesn’t speak and perhaps its a test. Other times, it may be that I am just to insensitive spiritually to hear. There may be other reasons that exist beyond human understanding, but as sons and daughters of God, we must stay the course, as Paul did, regardless of circumstances.

    That doesn’t mean its always easy.

    I do worry about those of whom the Master speaks of here:

    “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’Matthew 7:21-23

    These are people who were also confident in their relationship with Jesus and “knew” for certain that their names were written in His Book of Life. Where did they go wrong and can their lives, and whatever is wrong in ours, still be made right?

    That’s what the Days of Awe are for. Even though Christians don’t feel specifically directed to respond to this time of year, perhaps we should start. Some heartfelt self-examination might reveal things we need to correct about ourselves before it’s too late. Perhaps we can change what he says in the verse I just quoted to “‘Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)

  3. The ways of God are mysterious. During another dreadful day at work, I had a sudden revelation: God is making a deal with me, that if I can overcome my nasty habit of going for the warm cozy safety of the sheets for as long as possible when I’m supposed to get out of bed in the morning, I will soon meet the woman of my dreams (talk about motivation). Now, I admit I hardly have a clue what people mean when they say they’re moved by the Holy Spirit, but I did get a case of the warm fuzzies, so it felt right. Then I actually woke up next morning, felt just awful without a speck of energy in my being, and wanted nothing more than to go back to the false snuggly womb of my bed. And I did. It occurred to me how difficult this habit would be to overturn. It’s like an addiction. And I didn’t struggle with this morning apathy when I was younger. Something about my recent, extremely predictable work + college life and the full monotony of adulthood weighs very heavy on my will to meet a new day. It hurts a dreamer to be brought so far down to earth.

    What does this have to do with your morning meditation today, James? Not much, but I felt like sharing it somewhere. I’m impressed that, like clockwork, you’re writing great theological reflections, quotations and all, six days a week. Not only am I the worst morning person of all time, I lack the cohesion of thought or the discipline to write as you write any time of day.

    Wishing you the best Yom Kippur.

  4. I’m impressed by your candor, Andrew. I believe you’re right about how difficult it is to change an unpleasant habit. We can know it’s right to make the change, but actually doing it and making it stick is something else. Motivtion itself is a habit.

    By nature, I’m a morning person. Even on my days off, I rarely stay in bed past 6 a.m. and sleeping until 7 is like a dream come true. As for my dedication at writing, I don’t think I could ever not write. I’d probably explode if I didn’t have this form of self-expression. I appreciate you calling my musings “great theological reflections”. I don’t know how great they are, but they are the part of me I have to offer every day that says who I am and who I’m trying to be in God.

    Blessings.

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