A still small voice

The sound of silence

  • Kol demamah dakah – a still small voice (KJV) – une voix, un silence subtil (André Chouraqui) – 1 Kings 19, 12.

Why dit God reveal the ‘Torah’ in the desert (‘bamidbar’ in Hebrew, first words and thus also the name of the 4th book of Moses, the book of Numbers). After quoting some meaningful answers from rabbinical sources, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks proposes a ‘spiritual’ answer (lecture 2016): The desert is a place of silence.

There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightning and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered G‑d not in the whirlwind or the fire or the earthquake but in the kol demamah dakah, the still, small voice, literally “the sound of a slender silence.”4 I define this as the sound you can hear only if you are listening. In the silence of the midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. To hear the voice of G‑d, you need a listening silence in the soul.

In the BBC documentary series, The Long Search (dealing with the world’s great religions), the presenter Ronald Eyre seemed surprised by the blooming, buzzing confusion, the loud, argumentative voices in the Beit Midrash, the house of study (the ‘Schul’ in Jiddisch). He signaled this to Elie Wiesel and asked: “Is there such a thing as a silence in Judaism?” Wiesel replied:

Judaism is full of silences . . . but we don’t talk about them.