Thursday, January 17, 2019

Silence: At Times Divisive, At Times Destigmatizing

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states (1:17)

“(Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said) All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence.”

This statement parallels the expression: “silence is golden”. The Talmud conveys this very notion when it says, “a good word is worth one shekel but silence itself is worth two shekels.”

How can we think that silence is optimal, when our tradition teaches us that sophisticated and abstract speech is what distinguishes humans from all other life forms. We use our speech to pray, learn Torah and help out our friend. How can we possibly prefer silence over speech?

There are two very different types of silence. One type of silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence leads to discord, division and dysfunction. One example of this is when someone gives a loved one “the silent treatment”. Another example would be when a parent is reluctant/ afraid to discipline a child, and instead they say nothing.

The good type of silence is the type we utilize when we think before we speak. Silence is golden when we use it to choose our words carefully. Silence is appropriate when there is nothing to say that can help or change the situation- like the silence of Aharon after the death of his two sons. Better for Aharon to be silent than to ask questions that have no answers or to get angry at Hashem when he realizes that his understanding of God’s ways is limited.

Silence is also necessary to allow space to demonstrate our care for others. Our silence can show that we are ready to listen to someone else. It validates the other person’s existence and shows a genuine concern for them - no matter what that person will say, or whether we are in a position to fix or even help the situation.  Our silence is golden, especially when it enables someone else in need to be heard.
This Shabbat has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat at our shul. I thank Shanee Markovitz for speaking Shabbat morning. Shanee exhibits incredible strength and commitment by speaking back home in Hollywood. Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft Lauderdale members have suffered/ do suffer with mental health challenges. And many of these people’s families have suffered alongside them. Some of that suffering is due to the challenges in treating mental health issues, the lack of access to quality care, cost of care, insurance challenges, etc. But a large factor in that suffering is due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Whereas there is little or no stigma attached to a diagnosis of diabetes and heart disease, there is often a high degree of stigma attached to mental illness. That needs to change. We hope that this weekend will foster some conversations and spread awareness and information about mental illness: how to get help if you are dealing with mental health challenges, and how to help if you know someone in that situation.

I believe that the process of removing stigma and facing the challenge of mental illness begins with the good type of silence; silence that exhibits a willingness to hear about the issues and learn what we can do. A silence that emerges from our community’s culture of caring that conveys to others that we value them, we want to hear from them, and we are here to help.

In this week’s Parsha, Moshe tells the Jewish People, as they fear that they are trapped at the Red Sea:

“Hashem will prevail for you, and you shall remain silent.

If we utilize the good type of silence, then Hashem will assist in our efforts at destigmatizing mental illness and creating a more caring community.

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