Laws of De'os - Chapter 2, Law 4(b)
Silence and the Road to Self-Discovery
"A person should always accustom himself to keeping silent (lit., 'should
increase his silence'). He should speak only of matters of wisdom or
matters pertaining to his living needs. It was said regarding [the
Talmudic scholar] Rav, the student of our holy teacher [R. Yehuda haNasi],
that he never engaged in idle chatter his entire life. This, however, is
the speech of most people. One should even limit his words when discussing
matters pertaining to one's living needs. Regarding this the Sages
commanded us, saying: 'Whoever talks excessively brings about sin' (Pirkei Avos
1:17). And they said, 'I have not found anything better for oneself
(lit., 'better for one's body') than silence.' (ibid.)"
Last week we discussed the preciousness of the Divine gift of speech. As
we explained, unlike animals whose communication is limited to expressing
their bodies and physical wants, man was granted speech on an entirely
higher plane -- as a means of expressing his soul. This is why the Sages
look so askance at empty speech. It is not only a matter of the wasted
words. It is the taking the very tool G-d granted us to express our souls
and using it to express our bodies -- our physical wants and animal drives.
This week I would like to approach this topic from a different
perspective. Thus far we have said that since speech is such a valuable
commodity we must not waste our words or sell them short of their
potential. But in truth silence is much more than just a lack of wasteful
speech. As the Rambam implies, there's a great value to developing the
ability to remain silent.
There are actually a lot of ways of bringing this out -- the importance of
being a good listener, of not being too aggressive, the self-reflection it
engenders. While I'm at it, I'll make reference to another Pirkei Avos
class I wrote on a related subject -- (Chapter 3 Mishna
5). (Gee with 200-odd classes out there, there's almost nothing new to
write nowadays...) However, this time I'd like to convey a single relevant
message. It is actually one I've observed myself from my limited
experiences as an educator.
Most of us are very image conscious. We're concerned with our external
appearance and with the impression we make upon others. This is of course
natural; there's no reason not to present ourselves as favorably as we
can. Yet I often find it excessive -- especially among the young. Some
people are so busy cultivating their own image that it's difficult to get
them to actually hear what's being said to them. As I heard R. Motty
Berger (www.aish.com) once complain, youth today walk around as they're
the heroes of their own television mini-series. Say something to them --
perhaps something meaningful and significant -- and they'll be too busy
thinking up a "comeback" or imagining how their TV role model would
respond that they never even stop and think about what is being said to
them. The words just do not register. And they spend so much time
projecting an image of whom they'd like to be that they never begin
thinking about whom they actually are.
As a result, only when such youngsters are far older do they really pause
and begin to ask themselves the real questions of life -- who they are,
what are their values, what should they believe in -- which any thinking
young adult should have asked himself years earlier. Only years later --
quite possibly when it's too late to do very much about it -- do such
people ask themselves if the performance they've been staging all these
years is who they actually are.
Silence thus engenders within ourselves the ability to hear and absorb
what others are saying. It allows us to grow out of ourselves, to pause
and truly be receptive to other thoughts and points of view. Rather than
being wrapped up with ourselves and the impression we make, we must at
times pause and truly listen -- and understand what is beyond.
But there is an even more pernicious manifestation of this problem. We've
all come across people who seem to always be talking. Certainly such
speech itself is excessive and usually out of place. But I feel it often
betrays an even deeper flaw. Talking is a form of asserting oneself, of
getting the last word. If someone says something to you (especially
something critical) and you answer back, it's basically a form of refusing
to take anyone else's words sitting down. You have to respond; you have to
have the last word. No one else's words can be accepted for what they are -
- however valid they may be. You must stay on the defensive and hold your
And I've found this among students as well. Some students have to always
have the last word. Whatever you attempt to explain to them they must
restate their own way. Now of course, that could be a very good quality.
To truly understand, the student must attempt to express the ideas himself
and put the thoughts into his own words.
Yet often, the motive is more sinister: The student must "take over" the
words. I don't want to be told. I don't want the words to changes me. I
want to be in control of them. I'm too sure of myself and set in my ways.
And to the teacher's exasperation, such a student can never actually hear
and accept the teaching. He has to remake and reshape the words,
construing (and misconstruing) them into a form he's willing to accept.
Rather than accept what the teacher is saying and absorb the teaching for
its full worth, he must take the words and fashion them according to his
liking. I'm in control of myself; I am who I am. And I decide what enters
Silence, however, allows us to absorb -- and be shaped by what we hear.
Hear the words, take and ingest them for what they are. Be passive,
be silent. Allow yourself to be shaped by wisdom greater than yourself.
Silence enables us to open ourselves to new ideas and new ways of
thinking. And it's not only a matter of having good ears and a reasonable
attention span (themselves not easy qualities to come by). It requires
openness and sincerity, a willingness to absorb new ideas and allow them
to influence us for the better. Let the words change you; take them for
their full and absolute worth. And only then will we learn to think
outside the box and grow to become who we are not today.
(Needless to say, we must be sufficiently discerning to know what is
worthy and what is not. We all know how many charlatans and snake oil
salesmen are out there peddling the "truth" -- on the Internet in
particular. We must be selective about what we allow in. There have been
many all through the generations who have introduced "new and improved"
version of our timeless Torah. But when we do discover truth, we must find
within ourselves the ability to incorporate and integrate, and to grow
from what we hear.)
Let me just conclude by tying this in to the statement from Pirkei Avos
which the Rambam quoted above. R. Shimon said that his entire life he grew
up among the Sages, and he has not found anything better for oneself than
silence. I believe there's a deeper idea implied in his words. The precise
translation of his words is actually that he "has not found anything
better for the body (la'guf) than silence." It seems a peculiar
choice of wording. Why bring up the body?
But I believe the idea is as we wrote above. For one to truly grow from
his studies, he must be malleable. He must see himself as a body -- almost
a shapeless mass, ready to be molded by the wisdom he studies. Only then
will the wisdom he studies truly move him and fashion him into a greater
human being. And further, when wisdom penetrates a person so deeply, it
permeates his very body. Even our bodies will respond to such wisdom if we
only let it in. Our very essence will be shaped. And rather than our
bodies weighing us down with sluggishness and desire, we will become whole
human beings, body and soul, fashioned through and through in the image of
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org