In New York a room in the United Nations building is called “A Room of Quiet”. The name is explained in this fashion: “This is a room devoted to peace and those who are giving their lives for peace. It is a room of quiet where only thoughts should speak.”
Yom Kippur too gives us “a room of quiet where only thoughts should speak”… the thoughts of a husband who quietly realises how deeply he loves his wife, of a wife who recognises how fortunate she is in her husband, of children who discover the solid quality of their parents, of parents grateful for the good there is in their children, of friends who determine to be better friends, of colleagues who resolve to show greater appreciation of each other in future… these are some of the thoughts that speak.
The thoughts also speak of ourselves and God. We pretend we don’t believe in Him, but we all know deep down that something exists which is higher than human, and in moments of stillness it beckons us upward.
The mystics ask, why do we conclude the fast by saying HaShem Hu HaElokim, “The Lord, He is God”, seven times? However unemotional we are, by the end of the day we have reached such exaltation that despite ourselves we feel close to God.
And then the day is over. Its exaltation lingers a little, but so often the spirit has evaporated by morning. Whilst it was there the silence was real, the thoughts did speak, but now it is i-kavod, “the glory is departed”.
But things don’t have to be so. Every day of the year we can catch a glimpse of Yom Kippur by “surrendering to the stillness… by withdrawal from the market-place, the honking of horns, the television set, the innumerable diversions and attractions which modern living thrusts upon us, and yielding to the quiet that is everywhere” (Samuel H Dresner).
Thoughts can speak almost anywhere, in the garden, in the bedroom, by the water, among your books – certainly in the synagogue. Calm, peaceful, serene surroundings are good for silence. It helps us reflect and resolve.
Let’s find silence, and then go back into the world and find speech. Let’s go to other people, give them a smile and a word of friendship and concern. Perhaps they won’t always respond at once, or even at all. Maybe the world has not been good to them. But one rebuff should not stop us.
There are times to be silent, and times to speak – to say words that are caring, not callous; words that are considerate, not cruel; words that are pure, not pornographic; words that are peaceful, not provocative. Let the silence tell us what to say; let the power of speech say it and let us help to make the world a better place.