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Home » Acharei Mot, Tetzaveh, Yom Kippur

Tetzaveh : The Sounds of Silence

Submitted by on February 10, 2005 – 8:29 amNo Comment | 3,071 views

The Meaning of Sound

What does sound mean to you? Sound plays many roles. It is a vehicle for communication, music, and even distraction, but at its root sound is the simple indicator of life.

Life is filled with audible indicators, and I find their sound reassuring. In the office it’s the constant hum of the computer. In the supermarket it’s the steady buzz of conversation. At home it’s the little sounds of children at play.

These sounds are woven into the very fabric of my life and they assure me that its operation is smoothly at work. Even as incessant clanging drives me desperate, even as I crave a moment’s peace, I know that I find the noise comforting. Should these little voices ever stop purring I know I would crave these most elementary indicators of life.

Even in serenity there is mild activity, even in relaxation there is slight movement, even in peace there is muted sound. When I imagine relaxation I conjure up images of playing children, whispering breezes and gentle waves. I think of floating yachts, flying seagulls, and the shimmering rays of sun. These may be tranquil activities, placid movements, relaxing voices, but they are movement and sound nonetheless.

A Time for Silence

The absence of sound may be comforting for a moment of two but is too silent for my long-term tastes. Before long I would feel compelled to flee. I’d call a friend, turn on the radio, anything to escape the oppressive stillness of silence.

Beyond life spans a vast stillness. When all is achieved and activity has ceased, when there is nothing left to strive for and nothing left to attain, then we can afford silence.

There will be plenty of time for that silence. For now, I prefer my silences punctuated by the pulsing sounds of life.

Sound denotes activity, activity denotes movement, and movement denotes a discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be. When we arrive at our ultimate destination we can afford to lie low, but life is not the time for that. Life is a time for momentum, for forward movement, for growth and expansion.

The Jingling Bells

This affinity for sound may help to explain why the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was instructed to fashion bells on the bottom of his tunic. (1) The bells softly jingled as he walked and announced his entrance ahead of him. (2)

At first glance this seems a curious intrusion. Is the house of G-d not best served by the dignity of quiet decorum? Do these sounds not draw undue attention to the high priest, detracting from the emphasis on G-d?

If this were the purpose of the bells, these questions would have been reason enough to do away with them. But that was not their purpose. These bells reflected the essence of life. They represented the give and take, the hustle and bustle, of movement and growth. The High Priest did not live in a vacuum of spiritual seclusion. He lived in a world where ordinary people struggled to forge an extraordinary relationship with G-d.

In this struggle, ordinary people were left wanting. Despite their efforts, they knew they could do better and they always desired more. They found themselves on a growing curve, caught up in a momentum of upward mobility. This movement was reflected in the soft jingling of the bells.

The High Priest raised ordinary Jews aloft by acting as their inspiration to climb ever higher. Their escape from the mundane, their relocation from below to above, their newfound spiritual energy, were reflected in the call of the priestly bells as he advanced through the temple’s sacred corridors.

A Holy Silence

There was, however, one day in the year when the high priest shed his tunic and its dangling bells. This was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year when he entered the holiest room in the temple. When he entered G-d’s room he was silent. sounds of silence - innerstreamNo bells marked his advance. No sounds announced his entry. (3)

The question begs itself. Why not? Is utter silence not the mark of death? Can anything be more alive then G-d himself? Should not our presence before him be marked by the ultimate sounds of life?

The answer lies in the nature of the room. This was not the priest’s room. This was G-d’s room. In this room the High Priest did not think of himself, where he was and where he would like to be. He did not think of other Jews, where they were and where they would like to be. This room was not about people. It was about G-d. Here, mortals are silent. This is not the silence of a vacuum but of utter selflessness. It is the silence of a surrendering ego and a complete merging with G-d.

Once our egos are surrendered, and we are merged with G-d, we have no further need to ascend. Our scale of spiritual growth notwithstanding, we have touched G-d. This is the pinnacle and scaling another peak cannot draw us higher. G-d is here just as he is there, lower just as he is higher. We have discovered G-d and G-d is everywhere.

On Yom Kipur we arrive at the essence. There are no further goals to reach. There is no need for movement, activity or sound. There is only silence. The concept of sound has not been suspended but transcended.


  1. This essay is largely based on Likutei Sichos vol. 16 p. 336. A talk given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on February 22’nd 1975. (R. Menachem M. Schneerson, 1902-1994)
  2. Exodus 28, 33
  3. Exodus 28, 35
  4. Toras Kohanim on Exodus 16, 4. However see footnote #18 in the Sicha for further analysis.

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