There’s a Hasidic story about Yom Kippur in Berdichev, centuries ago. All the Jews were gathered in one synagogue, waiting for their rebbe, Levi Yitzhak to finish praying. But on this year, something strange was happening. The rebbe, stopped his prayers, began muttering to himself and pacing back and forth on the bimah, visibly disturbed and distracted. After a long time of this, everyone began to become concerned: “He is asking a lot of us. We are fasting! How long will he keep us?” Still, they waited quietly for him to settle this divine matter.
Then he stopped and faced them. At last,they thought, he’s going to pray! They straightened up to listen. But Levi Yitzhak surprised them all and spoke: “At this moment,” he said, “I cannot continue. Today, this prayer must be sung by one who is so committed to it…that he is willing to die while he prays.” Everyone there was stunned by his announcement, not sure what to do.
After a while, he spoke again. “One of you must sing this prayer. In this holy moment, it must be sung by one who is willing to die in the act.” They looked around at each other. Most of them had ideas about who it should be. But no one spoke. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, “There must be someone who is willing to sing this prayer now, knowing it may be your last words in this lifetime.”
They heard a bench scraping. Slowly, someone was standing up. Strangely, the sound was not coming from the side of the synagogue where the machers, the important people sat. Even so, they were relieved to hear the sound of someone rising. Turning to see, they saw an old man, rising slowly from the bench against the rear wall of the synagogue. They were aghast. Him? Once, this man had a gorgeous voice. Long ago, in fact, he had been Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Hazzen, or cantor. But he was so unsparing of his voice in the service of God over the years that he had begun to lose it. By the time he more croaked than sang, he was asked to stop his attempts at music, and he was forced into retirement. For years now, no one had given him a thought.
But this day, he toddled slowly toward the bima. When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak saw him, he smiled and stood aside. At last, the old man reached the bima, turned around to face the congregants, and opened his mouth. What came out was more growl than song. Instinctively, people covered their ears. Yet the old man went on, cawing like a tormented crow.
This man was to represent them to heaven? People in the prestigious seats began to exchange glances. Yet now they were distracted by other sounds – from their beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. He was bent over in an intense state of: what was it? Pain? Grief? Suffering?
As the old man went on with the prayer, his rough voice cracked completely, and for a moment no sound came out at all, except his labored breathing. His voice cracked again and again. The silences became longer than the periods of “singing.” By now, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was writhing on the floor. He trembled. His legs began to twitch. The congregants were stunned. The old man’s singing was painful, but no one seemed to be in as much agony as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak! Was he in danger? Should they intervene? At last, three respectable villagers approached the bima and knelt down beside Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. One of them touched Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s cheek. “Holy rabbi, are you all right?”
After a time, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak opened his eyes. “It is just as well that you roused me. If you had not, I would have died.” Now he slowly stood up. “But I dearly wish that you never had. You see, in the silences in that man’s song, I heard the music of God.”
Once again, he faced the congregation. As he prayed, everyone’s voices joined his, in equal fervor. And that’s the end of the story…
It is in the silences between the notes, between the gasps of pain and anguish, between the noise we hear and the endless thoughts of our tormented minds, there, in those silent gaps, we can find the very music of God! This was the Demamah, the silence, that Aharon showed us in his moment of tragedy.
And it is also perhaps true that Kind David was even at a higher level than even Aharon—as was Elijah, as was Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev—when they could hear that Kol Demamah Dakah, that still silent Voice even as the noises of the world: the wind, the earthquake, the fire, the craoking voice of a dear old man—replaced the silence with so much noise. They could find the stillness even in the midst of all that.
In our day and age, we live in a world of so much noise and distraction. There is the constant droning of our televisions and computers and ipods and cell phones. There is the constant noise of a restless and frightened world: the noise in our own minds and hearts as we constantly worry about the future, about our children’s futures. There is the noise of oppression and injustice that demands our attention and action, to be sure. And there is the noise of so much tragedy and violence in this world, the anguished cries of so many parents who still must witness the death of their children. And there is the noise of our history of tragedy that calls us to remember, like the rememberance of the Shoah that we will comemoriate at the Garden of the Righteous ceremony here next week. All of these noises are important. They demand our time and love. But when do we listen for the Kol Demamah Dakah, the still Voice of Silence itself, singing to us it’s heavenly Divine Voice? Without that Still Silence, the noise of this world can overwhelm us with grief and stress. That Kol Demamah Dakah lives within our very hearts. It’s there, in the silent spaces between our words, between the very thoughts we think in our heart of hearts. When we, like Aharon and David, like Elijah and Rebbe Yitzhak learn to listen to the stillness within, in that we find the context, the meaning, the strength and even the joy to be able to face the fierce noise of life itself. That Silent stillness is always there for us, just beneath the surface, waiting for us to listen. Let’s listen for it, and may it give us the strength to face this world, and to transform this world from noise to music, and from tragedy to joy.