The POSTman knocks twice: Living in a Tower of Babble

Could we please have a one-day fast of speech?

November 26, 2015 20:56
4 minute read.
Place de la Republique

People hold hands to form a human solidarity chain at Place de la Republique near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, November 15, 2015. . (photo credit: REUTERS/PASCAL ROSSIGNOL)

"And Aaron fell silent.” Just two words in Hebrew, yet this is one of the most moving passages in the Torah. Aaron’s two sons had been struck down by an act of heaven, and their father remained silent in his pain.

The German proverb tells us reden ist silber, schweigen ist gold: speaking is silver, silence is gold. The Bible shows us that the deeper the feeling, the stronger the silence.

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I have sought to remain silent these past few weeks during the spate of murders against fellow Jews committed by incited stabbers, shooters and drivers, many of whom were minors. Our family continued with our scheduled plans, adding only the cautious sideward glances that symbolize the times.

We have been drowning in endless babble. In this column, I do not want to point my finger and name names. Let’s try to be dispassionate about the babble, so as not to disguise our pain.

The endless competition among radio stations and television channels leads to endless babbling, conjecture, rehashing, and ugliness.

As a newsman, I was never able to ask a bereaved parent or sibling, “How did you feel when....?” Or as a radio correspondent, never could I push my microphone into the face of a victim and say unctuously, ‘When you saw the terrorist coming at you, what was your reaction?” I would never take a beat that required this.

Our radio and TV emit endless loops of repetition, rebroadcasts, and after this feast of words come the crows, the mavens. “Expert” this and “expert” that.

And so on – an endless bleating and babbling.

At home, we can turn it off, but many just leave it on and have it dinned into their consciousness, minute by minute, hour by hour. One of my friends who lives abroad calls it “the CNN effect.”

Perhaps the worst offenders are the politicians, who exemplify the “speaking is silver” part of the German proverb. In their “silver-tongued” Twitter tweets and Facebook posts, as well as in recorded or televised statements, they rush to be read and heard. In some cases, it is their national responsibility to speak. Often, though, it is a search for headlines. In that endless search, the ugly examples are so egregious as to make naming names unnecessary.

Nonetheless, some words are so outrageous that the speakers must be especially censured and exposed to shame. One Clint Eastwood-like party leader who carries two hypothetical six-shooters told his people, “I shot the prime minister between the eyes.” He meant that he threatened that his party would leave the coalition, forcing new elections, if Israel were to take unilateral steps in Judea and Samaria. Such a tactic is of course kosher in politics. The language is abundantly cheap.

One new MK with a questionable past, and I hope an unquestionable future, made fun of a handicapped MK suffering from a horrible debilitating illness. Ultimately he had to make a forced apology or face ostracism in his own party, Ministers and MKs galore and wanna-bes of all ilks have been giving the prime minister and defense minister abundant free public advice. As I learned bitterly in my career, if you are not paid for giving advice, it is a waste of time. But the headline seekers and the self-promoters are at it without respite. It is seldom good advice, usually given in ultra-patriotic tones to eke out a headline, perhaps an interview.

People in Israel are walking about in pain. A father who lost a brother 12 years ago also lost a son this week.

For parents, brother, sisters, children, widening circles of families and friends – pain is not a strong enough word! Remember, false preachers, we are all family. Put their pain before your self-promoting words, before the indecent babble of all who have the answer.

One more who had an answer is a “rabbi.” He knew why the terrible Paris attacks had occurred: it was a “payback” for the Holocaust....

Yet “Aaron fell silent.”

Two great Hebrew leaders were men of stumbling speech or unclean lips. Moses, our teacher, was a stammerer.

Isaiah, perhaps the greatest of the prophets, had to have his unclean lips purified by flame. Because speaking did not come easily, they made every word count.

When Elijah heard the voice of God, it was not in the whirlwind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. It was a “small still voice.” That is the usual translation, but more precisely, one could write that the prophet heard God “in the thin voice of silence.”

The central prayer in our liturgy, set about two millennia ago, the amidah, is recited in silence. Much later in Jewish tradition, rabbis, kabbalists more often than not, instituted the “fast of speech,” refraining from speech for 24 hours. Some even impose on themselves a fast of 40 days: from the first of the month preceding the New Year, 1 Elul, until 10 Tishrei, Yom Kippur.

For me too, it was hard to break the silence and write this column.

Could we please have a one-day fast of speech? Let’s have one day when there is no Tower of Babble, one day where there is only the thin voice of silence.

Avraham Avi-hai has lived in Jerusalem for more than six decades. Comments and criticism are welcome at [email protected]

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