God’s Silent Speech — and Ours

the-next-voice-you-hear

My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

What exactly is “the word of God?” And can it teach us about happiness and tolerance?

Jewish Studies scholar Shaul Magid doesn’t address the second question in “The Word of God is No Word at All.” But he gives us some clues.

Magid observes that in the Torah, God’s speech has two main functions: creation and revelation. Interestingly, the Torah refers to creative speech by one word and revelatory speech by another:

“… in the story of creation Gen. 1:1-31, the word ‘va-yomer’ (‘And God said”) appears ten times … this word ‘va-yomer’ [is not addressed to anyone] … it appears, then, that the intransitive nature of the term in creation is not used as a tool of communication, but almost as a vehicle for productivity …”

The Torah uses a different word when God speaks at Sinai:

“… in Ex. 20 with the verse, God spoke all these words, saying I am the Lord your God … here the divine word is not ‘va-yomer’ (God said) as in Genesis, but ‘va-yidaber’ (God spoke) … In the case of revelation there are those who hear, whereas in the former case the utterance is not meant to be heard but to initiate activity.”

And yet, says Magid, the two kinds of speech are connected. Creation is the first moment of existence, but the Torah starts with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet: “Bereshit bara Elohim …” Where did the first letter – “the missing aleph” – go? It went to the first moment of revelation: “’I (Anoki) am LORD your God …” (Ex. 20:2)

Thus, the two kinds of speech link the two dimensions of creation: physical and then moral. Various sages say that both kinds of speech are also silent: one kind of silence creates reality, while the other kind directs action.

What does that have to do with happiness and tolerance?

Speech is a vehicle of thought. On a smaller, mundane scale, we engage in our own kind of silent speech. It creates our perceptions, our emotions, and most crucially, it influences our actions.

Whenever we encounter a new situation, we identify it as one thing or another. For example, is a cup of coffee one thing, or two things?

We can pour the coffee out of the cup, so it’s then clearly a separate thing from the cup and there are two things. But for our goal of drinking coffee, it works better to think of a cup of coffee as one thing. We pick it up, we take a sip, then we put it down. All that cogitation takes place silently: we don’t think, we just drink. And like God’s silent speech in Genesis, our speech isn’t addressed to anyone. It only helps create the reality we see.

The first kind of silent speech leads to the second: our reaction. Someone cuts us off in traffic: we perceive the driver as a vicious interloper and we get angry. We argue with our spouse: we decide that he or she wanted to hurt our feelings, so we scream louder. Donald Trump (or in an alternate reality, Hillary Clinton) is the U.S. president: we decide that the world is doomed, so we retreat from society and we stockpile groceries.

That leads to an important fact: We often can’t control what happens, but we can almost always control how we react to it.

Will we frame the experience in a positive and helpful way, or a negative and destructive way? Will our reactions bring light into our world, or will they darken the world for us and everyone around us?

In a frustrating situation, we can either get upset about it or see it as a test to help us improve ourselves. When someone makes a remark that seems hurtful, we can ask: Are we sure about what it meant? Is there a positive interpretation that fits just as well?

If something happens in the world that seems evil, maybe it is — but that’s not the question we should ask. We can’t do anything about it being evil. The question we should ask is: What can we do, if anything, to improve the situation?

Our silent speech can never be as powerful or important as God’s silent speech. But it can help us do our part as God’s very junior partners to create goodness in the world.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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