Silence, Shofars, and Elul

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).

This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see www.rivertonmussar.org), but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).

Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?

We get a clue in the next verse, which will also provide a clue for our own practice of silence:

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and they were given seven shofars (Rev. 8:1–2, CJB).

Silence prepares the heavenly scene for the sound of the shofar, which is about to announce God’s judgment. The shofar-blast that puts humankind on notice and calls them to return to God can be truly heard only when other sounds are silenced. We hear God’s voice most fully when other voices are still.

As I’m writing this, we’re in the month of Elul, whose traditions include a daily sounding of the shofar to help us prepare for the High Holy Days. On Rosh Hashanah, at the conclusion of Elul, the shofar will be a dominant theme. Rambam, also known as Maimonides, describes what this shofar is trying to say:

Awake, O sleepers, from your sleep! Arouse yourselves, O slumberers, from your slumber! Scrutinize your deeds! Return with contrition! Remember your Creator! . . . Peer into your souls; improve your ways and your deeds. Each of you should abandon his evil ways and his bad thoughts (from Hilchot Teshuva).

This, of course, is the message of Elul and the High Holy Days. The same Jewish tradition that tells us to sound the shofar on those days insists that it’s not normally sounded at any other time. The shofar’s voice at Elul is enhanced by the silence that preceded it. During the holy days when the shofar is sounded, we’re to reduce all the other voices that normally fill our ears. We can also bring silence into our daily practice, not only during Elul, but throughout the year, as we learn to sit (or stand, kneel, or lie) quietly in God’s presence. It’s a simple practice of shutting down the computer, silencing the iPhone, closing the books, and being still, at least for a few moments at a time. Of course, our mental noise might continue, and we can address that with practices of meditation that are described at Riverton Mussar.

For now, my point is simple: the voice of the shofar—the voice that puts the world on notice and calls us back to the Lord and his ways—is preceded by silence. Such silence is not just the absence of sound, but preparation to hear the voice of God.

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