Earth Etude for Elul 2: How do we hear the silent sound of the Earth?

by Andy Oram

The Unetanah Tokef prayer we say at High Holidays contains the famous phrase “a tiny silent sound” (translated in many ways) from I Kings 19:12. The phrase always grabs our attention because of the unexpectedness of the image. Let’s look back at the context of the original phrase in Kings to see how it might help us deal with the onslaught of climate disasters.

I Kings 19 describes the flight of Elijah after he has pulled off the biggest miracle since the fall of Jericho: an extravaganza that brings fire down from heaven to strike a blaze on an altar drenched with water. Elijah’s spectacular performance, however, did nothing to bring t’shuvah to the royal family, who chased Elijah out of the country under threat of assassination.

Elijah flees south in despair and resignation, not stopping in the safe haven of Judah but walking another forty days to reach Mount Horeb. He stops there, the site of God’s foundational revelation to Moses, as if everything that the Israelites had done since then was null and void. God asks Elijah what he is doing there, and Elijah responds with utter cynicism and hopelessness: “The Israelites have left your covenant…and I appear to be alone.”

God comes back with one of the Bible’s most striking mystical passages: “And here a great, powerful wind passed…God was not in the wind. And after the wind, a noise; God was not in the noise. And after the noise, fire; God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a tiny silent sound.”

A “silent sound”–directly counterposed to the noise that precedes it–is a sound that we cannot hear. Perhaps we are traumatized by the effects that came before, or perhaps we have simply forgotten how to listen to the Earth.

When God asks Elijah again to justify his actions, he answers with the same words as before: “…I appear to be alone.” God senses Elijah’s trauma and suggests that he go into retirement, appointing a few other people to replace him (I Kings 15-17). Elijah “gets kicked upstairs.”

To me, the tiny silent sound has two meanings. First, it’s a renunciation of grand, awesome gestures: certainly the noise and fire preceding it in the passage, and by extension the wonders wrought earlier by Elijah to no useful effect.

Second, the tiny silent sound tries to counteract the noise and trauma generated by droughts, hurricanes, floods, and fires that today dwarf Elijah’s demonstration. As destructive as these man-made natural catastrophes are, we must also look past them to silent but more portentous destructions: melting permafrost, oceans dying from the heat, disappearing species.

It is not too late to listen to the world. The tiny silent sound is our new way of returning to God and the Earth. Although destruction has been decreed for us our fate is not yet sealed. As Unetanah Tokef says, addressing the world with righteous acts can help us bypass the worst of the oncoming storm.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor in the computer field. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Andy has lived in the Boston, Massachusetts area for more than 30 years. He self-published a memoir, “Backtraces: Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques,” and his poems have been published in Ají, Conclave, Genre: Urban Arts, Heron Clan, Main Street, Nine Cloud Journal, Poetry Leaves, Steam Ticket, and Wild Roof Journal.

No Replies to "Earth Etude for Elul 2: How do we hear the silent sound of the Earth?"

    Got something to say?