1.17 His son, Shimon, taught:
Throughout my life, I was raised among the scholars, and I discovered that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence; not study, but doing mitzvot is the essence of virtue; excess in speech leads to sin.
There was a person I knew some time ago whom I was quite fond of. I enjoyed the time we spent together and always found our conversations stimulating and provocative, our words always well-chosen and intense for the occasion: We must have spoken of politics, religion, sexuality, music, art, and any other number of fascinating topics. But the moments I cherished most were not these. The moments I cherished most were those when we had no conversation, when the only thing we shared was silence.
There’s a line in the song “All I Really Want” by Alanis Morissette that I find especially relevant:
“Why are you so petrified of silence
Here can you handle this?
[three seconds of silence]
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re gonna die
Or did you long for the next distraction?”
I’ve always been fascinated by silence, in part I believe because of this song. The truth is, we are petrified of silence. Our minds are always whirring with thoughts of everything that it’s nearly impossible to silence it—and even when we do, there’s so much background noise distributed by life that we very rarely experience true silence. True silence is utterly immersing: Stepping into a library’s basement is like plunging into solid water, it’s so suddenly silent. Yet even then, the sounds of our own being quake through ourselves and keep the silence outside.
So true silence is impossible, but I don’t think it’s true silence that Shimon ben Gamliel is speaking about here: I believe the silence he refers to is the absence of speech.
Those moments I mentioned, they weren’t silent: There was the hum of the wiring in the house around us, there was the sounds of wind and rain, the sounds of insects and breath. The silence we shared was personal, the silence not speaking. We shared presence and that spoke for itself.
That brings to mind another saying: “Let your actions speak for themselves.” This, too, is true, and it’s what this teaching is trying to tell us. He phrases it differently, in the context of studying versus doing. I go through this daily, when I decide between studying physics or applying the concepts during homework. Both are needed, yet I can study as much as I want to, but unless I’m able to apply it, I haven’t learned anything.
So too is life. We can say as much as we want, but until we get around to doing something, nothing is done. We must judge ourselves not by words or thoughts, but upon actions. I can have quite a crude mind sometimes, but in action, I try my best to soften this side of me and, at least in most regards, I succeed. Should I be judged for my thoughts, if they never manifest in action? Some might say yes, but in a way, one could say no, and it’s in that thought we can stop ourselves before we turn our thoughts into actions.
True also is that words, that speech, is an action itself. Just as we must be careful how we move, we must be careful how we talk. Actions are concrete, but words are intangible: They can twist and turn through the air between us and end up hurting where we intend to heal, poisoning where we wish to cure, and ending where we intended to start.
This makes those moments of silence even sweeter, I think. We turned off our speech, unable to talk in excess, yet still managed to communicate, not through words, but through action. Words were less powerful then, when our presence is all that’s needed. Words mean nothing in silence, when all we need is each other.
It doesn’t always come easily, but times like these make silence feel like home.