An excerpt from The Wisdom of not Knowing, by Estelle Frankel.
Silence: The Role of White Space in our Lives
To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone
The famous violinist and conductor Isaac Stern once said that music is what goes on in between the notes. The spaces between notes, of course, are silent. Yet they create the rhythm and musical composition of a piece. They also provide the musician with room to pour his or her emotion into the music so that listeners will actually feel moved when they hear it. The in-between spaces are critical in other fields as well, including interior and graphic design. In interior design, a balance of furnishings and empty space ensures the flow of energy in a room and creates a calming effect on those who enter. Similarly, graphic designers are careful to balance the number of words and images on a page with the amount of space left intentionally blank. These areas, known as the white space, provide the ground upon which the intended design comes into focus. When a page lacks sufficient white space, it looks cluttered and can be difficult to read. The most successful graphic designers are those who master the art of understatement.
As a teacher and storyteller I am acutely aware of the role negative space plays in the spoken word, where a well-timed silence or pause in the middle of a story can convey emotion and create suspense. The silent pause also gives listeners a chance to absorb and reflect on what has been said and to locate themselves within the story. Without this auditory white space listeners are likely to get lost and tune out the speaker.
The Mystery of the White Fire of Torah
Jewish mystics were acutely aware of the role of white space in our spiritual lives. Jewish legend makes repeated reference to a mythic, mystical white space known as the “white fire” of Torah. In contrast to the black fire of Torah that is comprised of the written words, stories, and commandments we are most familiar with, the white fire is wordless and silent, existing in a timeless realm. It represents the primordial experience of divine oneness—the boundlessness of Ein Sof. As a symbol, the white fire points toward that which cannot be known or spoken—the truth before we attempt to limit it by putting it into words and thoughts. And though we cannot wrap our minds around it, we can intuitively grasp it in silence, in the pause between breaths and in the gap between thoughts. As a symbol, the white fire is akin to what Zen masters refer to when they talk about returning to the prereflective moment before thought arises or when they ask the seeker to show their “original face”— the face they had before their parents were born.
In the rabbinic imagination, the white fire contains the divine blueprint for creation. Its formless, boundless radiance provides the template from which all finite forms are fashioned; the white fire is the nothingness from which everything is continually created: “When the Holy One sought to create the world He gazed into the primordial Torah that was written in black fire upon white fire upon the divine forearm and from there created the universe.”
It also figures prominently in the legends surrounding the revelation at Mount Sinai. The original tablets, etched in stone by the finger of God, feature the brilliance of the white fire, with the black fire (the words and letters) inscribed secondarily upon it: “The Torah that the Holy One of Blessing gave to Moses (at Mt. Sinai) was white fire inscribed by black fire.” These first tablets—saturated with the Or Ein Sof, “the light of the infinite God”—are shattered and replaced by the second set of tablets that Moses carves himself. The radiance of the second tablets is diminished such that the white fire recedes into the background and the black fire moves into the foreground. The words and letters of Torah provide vessels through which the unknown mystery of the white fire—that which is beyond words—can be transmitted and known. The nigleh, or “known dimension” of Torah, simultaneously conceals and reveals the nistar, or “hidden dimension,” though only a slight residue of its infinite light reaches us now. This is the paradox of revelation: While words give us access to what would otherwise remain an ineffable mystery, they do so by limiting what can be known.
Words and Silence, Time and Timelessness
The legends surrounding the white and black fires of Torah all point toward the mysterious relationship that exists between words and silence, and between that which is known and that which remains unknown and unknowable. Just as the black fire of Torah supersedes the original white fire, the acquisition of language shapes the preverbal child’s psychic development. The infant’s growing ability to use language to think about his inner emotional experience enables him to master the often overwhelming, raw power of his feelings and emotions. In other words, language gives the child a handle on his emotional life.
For the mystic, words translate the silent, unknowable, supernal mysteries into a language the mind can absorb. It is as if God is mute and can only communicate in silence. Our job is to lend our ears, heart, and mind to listen to the divine silence and to translate it into ideas and wise practices we can utilize. The twelfth-century Spanish Torah commentator and grammarian Avraham Ibn Ezra writes that our good deeds give God utterance. Scripture also refers to God’s voice as a speaking silence, kol dmamah dakah. This Hebrew phrase, most often translated as “the still, small voice,” expresses the essential paradox of divine revelation: God’s voice, kol, is the voice of dmamah, silence and stillness. Elijah hears this speaking silence at Mount Horev (1 Kings 19) and instantly recognizes it as God’s voice, for only God can speak and be silent at the same time.
Entering the Void in Silence
The importance of silence for spiritual development is evident in every faith tradition, though its centrality varies from one spiritual path to the next. Among Jewish mystics none were as committed to silence as Reb Menachem Mendel of Vorki, who came to be known as “the Silent Rebbe.” Unlike the other Hasidic masters of his time who left an extensive legacy of oral teachings, he rarely spoke, and when he did, he used words very sparingly. What we know about Menachem Mendel’s life comes from a handful of Hasidic tales that highlight his practice of silence. Mendel knew that the deepest transmission of spiritual insight occurs in a place beyond words and thought. Therefore, when a scholar or seeker came to meet with him, Mendel would first sit with him in silence for a good amount of time. Then, in parting, he might exchange a few charged words of Torah. Like seeds of light planted within the soul of the seeker, his words would slowly do their healing work. Because of his reticence to talk, Reb Mendel did not amass a huge following like his father, Reb Yitzhak, or his brother, Reb David; yet a small group of loyal seekers gathered around him.
One time, Mendel and his small group of disciples spent an entire night together in silence. At dawn he said: “Truly blessed are those who understand that the phrase ‘God is One’ means that ‘God is One!’” As they rose to leave in silence, everyone present was filled with deep reverence and joy, as if they, themselves, had been present at Mount Sinai when God spoke these words.
At face value Mendel’s words say nothing new. Every religious Jew recites these words from scriptures three to four times a day when they say the prayer known as the Shema.
Yet, when Mendel uttered them, those present experienced the oneness. Instead of offering secondhand knowledge about divine revelation, Mendel’s words transmitted the direct experience of revelation. In silence, Mendel entered the place beyond thought, a place so still that the few words he spoke afterward did not remain conceptual but entered directly into the heart and soul of the listener. In silence, Mendel reached into the white fire of Torah and drew forth its infinite, primordial light and wisdom.
Reb Mendel was not the only Jewish mystic to advocate silence. In the introduction to the Zohar, there is a story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in which he instructs his son in the power of silent transmission of the mysteries: “Elazar, my son, cease your words, so that the concealed mystery on high, unknown to any human, may be revealed.” Words can take us only so far in understanding the divine mysteries. Beyond that point, silence becomes our only true guide, as Elazar later reflects: “My silence assembled a temple above, a temple below. Indeed, a word is worth one coin; silence two . . . By holding my silence, two worlds were created, erected as one.”
The Hasidic masters used silent meditation as a way to become one with Ein Sof. Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Zhelikhov, one of the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov, says that “in silence it is possible to become one with the World of Thought, or the sephirah of chochmah [wisdom]. . . . Only one who can be silent may go beyond the world of form and enter the void where he may know God in His infinite hiddenness.” For Jewish mystics the “world of thought” is not a world of thinking and ideas as we commonly know it. Rather, it represents chochmah, “wisdom”—the very first point to emerge in the great chain of being. Paradoxically, to enter the world of thought, one must go beyond thoughts and thinking.
A Closing Tale: Communicating the Ineffable
Reb Yitzhak of Vorki and Reb Avremele of Trisk were the best of friends in their youth, spending all their waking hours together studying Torah, praying, or going for long, silent walks in the woods. When they grew up and each became the rebbe of a different shtetl, they vowed to stay connected by writing a letter to one another on the eve of every Sabbath, in which they would share their thoughts and feelings and most recent spiritual insights. For years they successfully did just that with the generous help of Reb Yitzhak’s personal assistant, who became known as the letter carrier. Each Friday morning after prayers Reb Yitzhak would compose a letter, which his assistant would carry from Vorki to Trisk, where Reb Avremele lived. He would then wait until Reb Avremele composed his reply, which he would then faithfully carry back to Reb Yitzhak in time for the Sabbath. Though this practice went on for years, the letter carrier never questioned Reb Yitzhak about the content of their letters. But one Friday, when he was feeling especially tired on the trek between shtetles, the assistant began to wonder about the letter he was carrying and he toyed with opening it and reading it as a way to reward himself for all his troubles but then resisted the temptation. The next week, though, he succumbed to his curiosity as he reached the middle of the forest and he decided, once and for all, to read the letter before delivering it. When he opened up the envelope, what he found inside shocked him—it was a blank piece of paper! He suddenly felt very upset, and he began to imagine that he might be the butt of a cruel joke; however, out of loyalty to his rebbe, he put the blank piece of paper back in the envelope and delivered it to the Trisker rebbe, who proceeded, as usual, to send a letter back. Once the letter carrier was back in the forest, he opened up the Trisker rebbe’s letter and, once again, found a blank piece of paper. While he felt justifiably upset, the letter carrier also felt guilty for betraying his rebbe’s trust. As he made his way back to Vorki in time for the Sabbath, he resolved to confess his betrayal and also to demand an explanation.
After the Sabbath, Reb Yitzhak could see that the letter carrier was visibly upset, and so he took him into his private chamber and asked him what was wrong. As the assistant confessed he began to cry. Reb Yitzhak cried along with him, in deep sympathy. They stood together weeping and embracing for what seemed like hours, and then Reb Yitzhak began to slowly explain the meaning of his actions:
It says in the Zohar that the primordial Torah—God’s Torah— is made up of black fire written upon white fire. The black fire refers to the actual letters and words of the Torah, while the white fire represents the spaces between the letters. Though the black fire is holy, the white fire is actually holier. Its teachings are so deep they cannot be put into words. It’s the same with love. Now, there are people we love and we know exactly why we love them. But there are those whom we love so deeply we have no words to express what we feel. Our love is beyond all thought. Sometimes, when I write to my dear friend, Avremele, I share some teachings I learned that week, and he writes back what he has been learning. But sometimes my love for him is so deep that I just cannot express myself in words or thoughts. At these times, I just send him a blank sheet of paper to remind him of the white fire—the primordial Torah that is infinite. And so it is for him, as well. Please forgive me for not showing you more respect and gratitude all these years. I am so deeply grateful to you for your loyal service.
Estelle Frankel, author also of Sacred Therapy, is one of the lay spiritual leaders of ALEPH Network community Chochmat Ha-Lev. She has been involved in Jewish Renewal since 1978.