Finding Voice, Part Four: From Sound to Word

We return to the most famous biblical myth image of speech—the "Ten Words" spoken at Sinai. The Kabbalists, as you by now expect, have a different interpretation. In fact, according to the Kabbalists, God had nothing special to say that particular morning. God said what God says every day! "I am here," he said. "I am present. The world is meaningful. Every human being is created in my image and therefore has infinite value and dignity." In the language of the Kabbalists, "A voice issues forth daily from Sinai saying, 'I am the Lord your God.'" This is not a statement of theology but an affirmation of meaning and relationship based on voices in sacred conversation.

On that auspicious day at Sinai, we heard a voice not so much because God spoke, but because we listened. We got quiet. So did the whole world. In the wonderful imagery of the 3rd-century myth masters, "On the day of revelation a bird did not chirp, an angel did not sing, an ox did not bellow, the sea did not rage—the entire world fell silent . . . and the voice at Sinai was heard."

The voice can be heard only from the silence.

Sights of Silence
In the story of the Divine Chariot (Ezek. 1) so beloved by Jewish mystics, the biblical myth master Ezekiel envisions what he calls Chashmal. Chashmal is a unique word, explained by the Kabbalist Luria as the "Color of Speaking Silence." Chash means silence and Mal means speech, hence Chashmal is speaking silence. Our silence enables the opening revelation of Divine speech. This is the secret of the Chashmal.

It is even more than that. Our speech itself has two forms. First, there is speech that comes from speech. It is unconnected to the deep silence. We speak because we cannot tolerate the silence. Its emptiness is painful and oppressive. The second kind of speech is Chash Mal—that is, speech that wells from the silence. We all know the difference between conversing with a person who speaks from speech and a person who speaks from silence. Compare the used-car salesman and the Zen master. Several western thinkers have talked about silence as the antonym of speech. In both Kabbalah and Zen Buddhism, silence is not the opposite of speech; it is rather speech itself. In the words of the Zen Master Dogen, "I have no need for my speech to come [only] from my tongue"—that is, my speech is connected to a higher sound: the sound of silence.

A person who speaks from silence is comfortable with the space between words. Imaginereadingwordswithoutanyspacesbetweenthem—it's not easy to comprehend what is being said, is it? What a jumbled, mumbled world it would be without the empty spaces! Words by their very nature need space; the silence surrounding them is an essential ingredient of their meaning. Someone who speaks from silence allows for emptiness.

The scroll of the Torah is black ink written on white parchment. According to the Zohar, the black inked words represent the speech that comes from silence. The Zohar calls this Black Fire. The white spaces between the words are the silence itself. These are the White Fire. According to mystical master, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, a biblical myth scroll is deemed invalid—that is, it cannot be used in ritual reading—if the black ink of even one letter spills over into the white space. For the white fire is the source of the black fire and must always be protected lest our words turn to ash.

6/22/2011 4:00:00 AM
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