Elul and the Power of Silence

A fence to wisdom is silence. (Pirkei Avot 3:17)

"A New Normal?" by Randy Heinitz, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)
“A New Normal?” by Randy Heinitz, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)


Silence in its many varieties is powerful. In solitude or in relationship, as a mode of contemplation or communication, silence is often infused with significance.

Since our brains are hardwired to seek explanations, silence can be laden with meaning, though not necessarily with accurate interpretation. At times, when we are confronted with a silence that is externally imposed, wordless, negative narratives present themselves. In such moments we find ourselves facing an uncomfortable, anxious vacuum from sound. In the absence of clarity, we might be prone to tell ourselves stories—and fill in the gaps. At times, we find ourselves ruminating uneasily as we traverse the silence of perceived emotional deserts. We imagine encounters with disapproval and rejection, judgment and admonition. Quite simply, we know the apprehensive silence can be one that hurts.

Imagine, by contrast, silence of another persuasion. The silence permeated by contentment and peace. The silence that allows joy to flow in — and the silence that lets the quietest voices of our wisdom surface. The sort of silence that permits the still, small voice of G-d kol demamah dakah (‘the sound of a slender silence’) to be heard. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes of that voice, it is ‘the sound you can only hear if you are listening.’ When we stop to reflect on what brings us tremendous happiness or gratitude, in the midst of this kind of silence, we might discover in ourselves a profound sense that everything is exactly as it should be.

Imagine, as well, the silence of a shared, companionable space. The silence that lends a sense of peace — with its quality of ‘all that matters is only now.’ The silence where nothing much — if at all — needs to be said. Consider its variations: walking together in nature or making love. Or perhaps, the sacred silence of sitting with someone nearing the very end of life.

As we age, some of us might choose to cultivate more time to be in silence — to be with our thoughts, take in the vastness of our experience, to be still. Some of us may find ourselves in a silence that feels imposed by our environment. Perhaps we can take in the moments of silence in our days, weeks, and years that invite us to take stock of precisely where we are — and where we’d like to be.

As we embrace this month of Elul, this sacred time of repentance and reflection, and of heshbon hanefesh (soul accounting), we can approach it with either a sense of anxiety, or with a spirit of loving kindness and self-compassion. We can strive to resist our inclination to shy away from opportunities for repair — or to lapse back to silence. At this time of year, we nudge ourselves to push past the places where we leave something unspoken that needs to be said.

During Elul, we have the opportunity to seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. Are there some whom we may have hurt with our own silence? Some to whom might we reach out? Whose burdens might we ease, knowing they, too, might well inhabit these spaces of apprehension. How might we come into our voices? We are, after all, part of a tradition that celebrates the sacred, healing power of words.

Consider, as well, extending the experience of seeking to repair our relationships with those whom we have lost to death (or dementia). How might we have silenced our loving memories — or held ourselves at arm’s length from the chance to heal, if only internally? How might we restore our thinking to thoughts that are steeped in peace, rather than missed connection? How might we open our hearts to let love into these spaces of silence?

Embracing the opportunities present during Elul, Rabbi Rick Jacobs reflects on the power of hasket, a form of silence or stillness described in parasha Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy). He notes that by cultivating silence, as part of a spiritual centering, we might find ourselves ‘ready to hear’ our deepest voices. How might we take these moments of silence as a space where we can intentionally reduce the surfeit of stimulation — both inside and outside ourselves — in order to open our minds and our hearts?

We associate the sound of the shofar with Elul — recognizing its resounding power to stir us and call us to action. How, conversely, might we use the reverberations of silence to wake ourselves up?

About Alyssa Smith 2 Articles
Alyssa Smith, MSW, LSW is a meditation instructor, leadership coach, and IJS-trained Wise Aging facilitator. Her research and clinical interests include the roles of resiliency and spirituality in aging, illness, dementia, caregiving, and end-of-life experience.

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