Essay: The sound of silence

One day a year you can actually hear the world.

October 5, 2006 12:12
4 minute read.
Essay: The sound of silence

hillel halkin 88. (photo credit: )


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It's my favorite day of the year. It really is. I love the quiet. I'm always sad when it comes to an end. If it were up to me, we'd have Yom Kippur once a week. Of course, that's only because I don't go to synagogue; I get all the benefits without having to pay the price of a ticket. I'm quite aware that that makes me a freeloader. But the quiet is divine and I wouldn't have that sitting in synagogue. For that I have to be on my front terrace, watching the autumn shadows slide over the hills. There isn't a car on the roads. There isn't the sound of a weedbuster or a lawnmower. Not a machine, not a radio, not a television, not the ring of the neighbor's cell phone. Not an airplane in the sky. I hear other things. A beetle crawling across the stone floor, a leaf falling from the fig tree that's almost bare. It hits the ground with a small, crinkly sound, startled to be so loud. One day a year you can actually hear the world. It's so quiet that you wonder if the earth is still spinning on its axis. There are still places on this planet, of course, where you can have that every day, although not as many as there used to be. Nowadays you can be in a cabin in the middle of the woods in Vermont, or in a chalet in the Alps, miles away from the nearest road, and still be made to jump by the snarl of a chain saw or snowmobile. The earth isn't only getting warmer and warmer. It's also getting louder and louder. And in Israel, where no one lives miles from the nearest road, it's already reached metaphorically deafening levels. The only reason we don't complain about the noise in this country more is that we're so used to it that we don't even know it's there. We only notice it once a year when it's gone, like the city dweller in the country who can't sleep at night because there are no sirens and squealing brakes. HUMAN BEINGS have a quite astonishing capacity to get accustomed to noise. Over 30 years ago, on one of my first stints of reserve duty, someone fired a heavy machine gun a few inches from my ear. Back then, the army thought that only sissies used earplugs and none of us had them. For a few minutes I could hardly hear at all and was seriously concerned I had gone deaf. Then I began to hear sounds again. In fact they never stopped, because I've had a constant buzzing in my right ear ever since. There's nothing unusual about that in this country. A high percentage of men who did their army service in those years suffer from tinnitus. At first I thought I would go stark raving mad from it. To have to hear it all the time, every day, every minute, every second of my waking life! To never have a moment of silence again until I died! I didn't know how I was going to cope with it. But I did. Little by little the buzzing went away. Or rather, I stopped hearing it. Actually, it didn't go away at all. Whenever I thought of it, it was still there, a persistent sound like radio static when reception is bad and the volume is low. But when I took my mind off it, which gradually got to be just about all the time, I ceased to be aware of it. And yet, even at the most quiet times of the day - in the middle of the night, when I woke in bed and listened to the silence around me - what I was hearing wasn't really silence. It was the illusion of silence, and as soon as I remembered that my ear buzzed it was punctured. Well, who wants to listen to silence all the time anyway? It's more a question of what we don't want to listen to, such as the woman next to us on the train telling her husband in a loud voice (why is it that people talking on cell phones assume that whoever is on the other end needs a hearing aid?) how to make schnitzel for the children's dinner, or the sound of traffic from the highway that drowns out the first singing of the birds at daybreak. And yet it's a curious thing. Although the drone of traffic from afar does not sound all that different from the distant boom of surf on a beach, we do not hear them in the same way. The same person who will pay a fortune to buy a home from which he can hear the beating of the waves will spend good money on a lawyer to keep the highway away from him. OUR REACTIONS to noise are highly subjective. If we get along with our neighbors, we don't mind the sound of their children playing outside. If we don't get along with them, we gnash our teeth at the same sound. It's not the children's fault; they're making the same amount of noise in either case. But on Yom Kippur even the children play quietly. There's a solemnity in the air. It's as if everyone had stopped talking and started listening. For the wind in the trees. For a turtle in the bushes. For a dog barking somewhere far away. I don't care much for synagogue on Yom Kippur. There's too much weeping and wailing. Too many recitals of sins. Even as a child I resented having to confess to all kinds of things I had never done. I knew what my own sins were. There were enough of them. Why take upon myself everyone else's? But apart from that, it's my favorite day of the year. I'm always sad when it ends. If it were up to me, we'd have Yom Kippur once a week.

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