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Friday, May 25, 2012

Parshat Be'Midbar: Sound and Silence

The name of this week's parashah/portion, and the fourth book of the Torah, is Be'midbar which means "in the wilderness"  (Be’midbar /Numbers 1:1 - 4:20).

A rabbinic commentary points out that if we change one vowel in the name of the parashah,  the word במדבר  be’midbar, in the wilderness, becomes be'midabeיr, or with one who is speaking.

I found this ironic, since the wilderness is usually associated with silence and solitude. However, we can imagine that the wilderness of Sinai and its surroundings must have been anything but silent, with the multitudes of Israelites and others wandering through it for 40 years.

However, we all know that even in the midst of a cacophony one can experience silence, just as one can experience deafening noise while walking in solitude.  What determines the silence or the solitude is not one’s physical surroundings, but one’s inner state.

This poem uses the two different readings of the letters מדבר mentioned above to explore these various images.  (Note: I first published this poem a few years back, but this is a newly edited version)

the wilderness of silent speech
silent    still   serene
filled only with sounds  of nature
wind rustling   brush blowing  sand      
animal footfalls   howls in the night
all whisper the truth     of creation   existence
a whole civilization   within this  wild expanse
humans go there    to be alone    at one   at peace
        so we think
for this is  fantasy    the ideal     not real
for us

our wilderness     is filled with people
is wild with sound
        joyous shouts
            words of love
    never with silence

for 40 years     give or take
we take what we have been given
            give back what has been taken
our life in the wilderness
alive with the sounds  speech words
creating and destroying
  people   life    worlds
     engulfing the silence
  creating a wild place of words
      filling it with cries of revolt
  it swallows up rebels
      with critical words
turning a sister’s skin white
    a chorus of complaint
filling us to bursting
words of mistrust
setting us wandering
words also  soothe    praise    comfort 
our grief over
    the death of sons
        of a sister and brother
            of so many

words decree the death of a dream
the death of a leader
the birth of a new people
the start of a new journey

and yet I wish words would cease
     filling the wilderness     and my mind
     emptying me of the ability
to be still   silent  alone  at one     with you
I want a  another wilderness
one without speech   words
damnation   praise     love   hate   comfort
I do not want   I do not need   any words
I need a sanctuary   not a wild place  
but a place  where I can hear
   only you   only me one and the same
            in the stillness     the silent sounds
       the whispers of the spirit
   hovering around   within   us all 
    in the stillness of the One

this is  what I long for
what we all need
    ye most do are not aware
for they cannot hear  the whisper of your voice
they can only hear    their own words
constant cacophony   constantly striving for everything
sound and fury achieving nothing

it is only in subtle stillness we can find   everything
only in nothingness  we can find the truth
the oneness of existence

now    in this moment
I wish we would all   stop talking
exile words from our lips
allowing us to return 
to the land of silence 
the true wilderness  of the soul
where it all began   where it all continues
where we are   here    now
present in the moment   within you
in your wilderness
we are home

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