Thursday, November 06, 2008

747. Lekh Lekha: Silence and Commands

Here's the d'var Torah (borrowing generously from my post a few days ago), edited slightly for anonymity, that I just wrote in honor of ten years as a member of my synagogue:

Parashat Lekh Lekha
Silence and Commands

As I write this, the outcome is still a mystery. As you read this, a decision has been made and some people will be happy, others not, but one thing is certain: those who cast a vote will be proud to have done the right thing. To waive that right is to discard everything this country stands for.

At least that's how I answered my tenth grade history teacher when he asked: why vote? At 15, I didn't spend a lot of time questioning authority. I loved school and believed my parents most of the time, and had no desire to rock the boat. I remember raising my hand, sure that my perfect response would make me the star of the class.

Instead, the teacher pushed his glasses a little further down his nose and replied, "So what happens if you don't vote?"

What a silly question, I thought. "Then you're a bad citizen!"

"But as citizens we have the right to make any choice," he said. "And they all count, including the choice to NOT vote."

I had no answer to that. I was speechless, in fact. The idea that refraining from action could also express an opinion had never occurred to me.

My teacher's words became a convenient proof text for the rebellion of willful adolescent indifference. For years I remained ambivalent about voting, and believed my silence spoke louder as a personal statement. What better way to provoke authority than to join a majority of "undecideds" and align with a million cold stares? But as I got older I understood that there were different kinds of silence, and I was not really expressing what I had intended.

Silence can be a quiet act of connection, a joining together of community, in which the absence of words creates a powerful oasis of reason away from the noise of society—passive resistance, for example. But it can also represent the abdication of power, a solitary, selfish tearing apart. The kind of silence I misguidedly espoused was about retreating, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Great Streets of silence led away
To Neighborhoods of Pause —
Here was no Notice — no Dissent
No Universe — no laws —

Eventually I saw that my choice to not vote fell into this category, and that I was squandering the privilege of living in a democracy.

So when I considered the beginning of Avram's journey in Parashat Lekh Lekha, I was as annoyed with him as I had once been with myself. How could he accept, without a single word of protest, God's command to wander in the wilderness? Was he afraid to challenge God, Who gave humanity the unique power to speak, assign names, make choices—to not remain silent? And did God really want Avram, an articulate, opinionated man who defied his father's idol-worshipping ways, to disavow that power? In both this story and the Akedah, I saw Avram as wasting a gift. His blind, obedient silence was as ill-considered as my past choice to not vote.

But I've come to believe that Avram's obedience was the other kind of silence, that of trust and partnership. Although the Torah gives no details about why Avram was chosen by God, midrash and Rambam assure us he proved himself worthy by struggling for years to escape persecution for his beliefs.(1) So Avram's lack of protest at that moment of command came after a lifetime of examining the question of God's oneness. Being chosen could be seen in that light as a mutual decision that initiated a reciprocal relationship.(2) Avram's silence led him down a road where he would learn, with God's help, to make the choices that were his gift and right. That's why the command was phrased as "Lekh Lekha"—go to yourself, discover yourself, and create silence within the cacophony of life to hear God's still, small voice and become God's partner.

I was reminded of my history teacher and Avram's journey when I realized that this election week, and this country's communal leap of faith as we exercised our right to vote, also coincided with an anniversary: ten years ago this weekend I walked into Shabbat morning services at [my synagogue] for the second time ever. At the insistence of a friend I had attended the Singles retreat the weekend before, one of the few non-members to squeeze in. I thought [my synagogue] was rather strange after my first visit a few months earlier and didn't plan to come back, but my friend was so enthusiastic that I decided to give it another try. Much to my surprise—shock, actually—I was intrigued by discussions of Torah that pertained to real life, and the astonishing image of people my own age welcoming Shabbat with singing, dancing, and pure joy. It was so unlike the Judaism I knew and mostly chose to ignore, a religion of inflexible rules and prayer led by old, mumbling men, that it felt like a different religion entirely. I came home from the weekend profoundly moved, and more curious than ever.

I couldn't wait until the next Shabbat morning. I knew I had to be at services—exactly why, I wasn't sure. I remember shaking with anticipation as I listened to the beginning prayers, and after about an hour the rabbis began to talk about Parashat Lekh Lekha and God's command to embark upon a journey within oneself, destination unknown. At that moment I understood the question I had been unable to articulate, and heard the answer. I wondered, just as I did when examining the duty to vote, if complying with the obligations of my religion would be a rigid constraint rather than an opportunity to grow. But I took Avram's lead, because to ignore the command would be to embrace that other kind of silence of denial and isolation. I remain grateful beyond words for this community and its leaders, a community that has taught me to listen to the questions beyond the noise, to hear and use my own voice in so many different ways, and to dare to explore paths unknown both in the world and within myself.

1. Leibowitz, Nehama, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), Jerusalem: Alpha Press, 1981, p.118.
2. Jospe, Raphael, “Covenant and Chosenness”


Regina said...

Just wonderful, aa... and thanks for posting this.
This resonated so deeply with where I am now in so many aspects of my life, that I think it's a post I'll keep coming back to time and time again...

alto artist said...

Oh, thank you so much!