THE KOAN OF SHRUNKEN SILENCE

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, recounted that one of his children asked him about waking and sleeping. The child asked, "If we can wake from sleeping, why can't we also wake from waking?" 

In essence, can we wake more? What might it mean for us to wake more?

This kind of question repeats in this week's Torah portion (Vayikra), the first of the Book of Leviticus, whose first word (vayikra) means "[God] called (Lev. 1:1). This first word ends with an aleph (א), first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is silent. In a Torah scroll, this silent aleph is printed smaller than all others. 

How can a silent letter be shrunk smaller? How can silence be more silent? How can we wake from waking?

These questions are koans. Playfully, they challenge our assumptions and focus the mind onto itself. Paradoxical questions really delve into our consciousness.

Our text-savvy ancestors, however, tried to answer these questions literally. Of the shrunken alephRashi and Jacob ben Asher imagined a self-consciously humble Moses trying to diminish focus on himself: why should God speak only to Moses when, at the end of Exodus, "the eyes of all of Israel" could see and follow God's fire and cloud (Ex. 40:38)? Nachmanides saw in the shrunken aleph a patient Moses passively waiting for God's call. If I step into this brainy textualism, I might read out the shrunken aleph – rendering vayikra ("called") as viy'kar ("honor") – the word that Esther 8:16 evokes along with light, joy and gladness as our spiritual inheritance. If so, then God was honoring Moses and all who step forward (or feel dragged forward) into spiritual service.

These kinds of brain games are fun, but at best they're only pointers to a deeper point. Koans like these point the rational mind at itself precisely to teach that there is far more than the rational mind. If we can slow the momentum of our rational minds, we might experience that silence can be more silent and waking can be more wakeful. We might sense that reality and consciousness are more textured and nuanced than our left brains alone can think on their own terms. 

Perhaps you've noticed that not all silences feel the same. Some silence is sweet; some silence is bitter. Some silence is stable and unchanging; some silence is pregnant with power, poised to pop into sound. Some silence is energetic; some silence is tired. Some silence is healing; some silence feels like an affliction. We experience these distinctions, but we can't think them rationally.

This shift of awareness, from left-brain analytics to right-brain knowing, opens a fount of resilience that the world is far more than we rationally can know. Even the mere theoretical possibility can empower and uplift us. And if we dare to enter the right-brained realm of koan, paradox, more silent silence and more wakeful waking, we might find a whole spiritual landscape just waiting for us to explore. 

Just ask the shrunken silent aleph, this week's resilience teacher.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus