In 1964, Paul Simon wrote the song “The Sound of Silence.” Performed by Simon and his partner Art Garfunkel, the song became a resounding hit, a classic if you will. The haunting melody and the cryptic words lend themselves to many interpretations. Let’s examine the first stanza:
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
One characteristic of poetry and song that gives them their power and relevance, is that they offer a multitude of readers from various places, many different meanings. In a lecture we attended by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amitai, an enthusiastic student raised her hand and said something like: “I’m so thrilled to finally meet you in person. I love your poetry and always wanted to ask you this question: I wondered what you intended when you wrote this line...” (she quoted a verse from one of his poems).
The poet countered, “well, what do you think it means?” She briefly took a stab at her own explanation, and persisted in asking what the poet wanted to convey. Amitai affirmed her interpretation, “if you see it that way, that is what it means!”
We poets deliberately write poetry in a cryptic way so that the reader can interpret it as he or she sees fit. So to these columnists, the words of Paul Simon mean that there is a loud and clear message even in silence, but we need to listen carefully to “hear” it and understand it.
So where is this conversation about the meaning of poetry and silence leading us?
Otto Frank is a familiar name to any student of the Holocaust. He was a Dutch Jew and the father of the teenage diarist Anne Frank, who hid his family from the Nazis in the annex of his business in Amsterdam for a little over two years. He was the only member of his nuclear family to survive the Holocaust. His wife, Edith, died in Auschwitz and his two daughters, Anne and Margot, died in Bergen Belsen.
Otto and his family fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. They settled in Amsterdam where Otto opened a warehouse for his successful spice business. After the Nazi occupation of Holland, the Germans began deporting Jews.
On July 6, 1942, with the knowledge and assistance of a few of his faithful employees, Otto, Edith, Anne, Margot, and a few other Jews went into hiding in an annex of Otto’s warehouse. They remained there until August 4, 1944 when they were denounced by some unknown person or persons and arrested by Dutch and German Nazis.
Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam on June 3, 1945. He was the only one of all those hidden in the annex to survive. Of course, Anne Frank’s diary, which she kept faithfully until she was arrested and sent to concentration camps, also survived, thanks to the efforts of one of Otto’s non-Jewish warehouse workers. The Diary of Anne Frank became an international bestseller.
Shortly after Otto returned to Amsterdam, he received an anonymous note which read as follows: “Your hideout in Amsterdam was reported at the time to the Jüdische Auswandering (Jewish Emigration) in Amsterdam, Eurerpestraat by A. Van den Bergh.”
OTTO FRANK never made this note public. He remained silent about its existence. Van den Bergh was Jewish. In effect, it would seem that Anne Frank was betrayed by a Jew! Suffice it to say that van den Bergh had been trying to save his own family in exchange for sharing information about other Jews with the Nazis. Shortly thereafter, van den Bergh died of throat cancer. The question remains: If Otto Frank knew this, why did he remain silent about his betrayers?
Rosemary Sullivan, author of The Betrayal of Anne Frank suggests that Otto did not want to pursue a dead man. Furthermore, he mercifully did not want van den Bergh’s children to have to suffer for the sins of their father.
In this regrettable situation, Frank saw no constructive purpose in publicizing the name of his family’s betrayer. Hence, he chose silence. But his silence echoes a message of honor and dignity. Surely, he wanted the betrayer of his family to be held accountable. Once that person was dead, Otto chose to be silent.
In the Book of Esther, we are told that Esther withheld information about her nationality and her birth because Mordechai instructed her to keep it a secret.
We know that by virtue of Esther honoring Mordechai’s request, she was able to reveal her true identity to her husband King Ahasuerus at the right time and save the Jewish people from the nefarious genocidal plot of the wicked Haman.
In the Purim story, the sound of silence became a powerful weapon of salvation.
King Solomon says that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent (Ecclesiastes 2:7). Essentially, King Solomon is speaking about two kinds of communication. Speech is easily understood as a way of conveying ideas. But silence is also a statement. From the perspective of King Solomon, the silence of a fool is wisdom (Proverbs 17:28).
In Israel, sirens are sounded on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. During those sacred moments, the entire country stands in a deafening silence of respect. The sound of silence is never louder.
But, we should never forget that as important as it is to cherish silence, there are times when we must speak out forcefully and pray. Essentially, Queen Esther makes this statement to Mordechai when she tells him to gather all the Jews of Shushan so that they would pray on her behalf before she risks her life to appear before the king without being summoned.
Essentially she is eloquently saying to Mordechai, “You have told me to be quiet and not reveal who I am; now I am telling you that I need your voice to help me save the Jewish people from the decree of Haman. So gather the Jews, go to the synagogues, fast and speak to God for three days and three nights, and my maids and I will do the same.”
Yes, there are times for the sounds of silence and there are times for the sound of prayer.
Rookie Billet is a Yoetzet Halacha (Women’s Consultant in Jewish Law) and a retired high school and middle school principal. Heshie Billet was rabbi of Young Israel of Woodmere, Long Island, for 40 years.