Judaism: Background Noise
In the highly charged urban setting in which most of us currently live, there always is background noise in our lives. Traffic, honking horns, noisy pedestrians, exuberant children, strange and mostly unintelligible public announcements blared from automobiles with public address systems…. are all omnipresent.
There was a period of time here in Israel when we were a much smaller country and population, and when Jerusalem rolled up its streets at about 9:30 PM and quiet reigned supreme until dawn. Not so anymore. Though we are not quite the city that never sleeps, as is the dubious (in my opinion) description of other larger major cities throughout the world – Jerusalem is anything but a quiet place for most of the night and certainly for all of the daylight hours.
Since the rarified air of Jerusalem somehow conducts sound ably and distantly, the noise of far distant weddings being boisterously celebrated often finds its way into my bedroom as I am attempting to fall asleep. In truth, I have become adjusted to living with constant background noise in my life. This was one of the adjustments that I had to make in moving to the urban environment of Jerusalem from the pastoral and semi-rural environment of Monsey, New York.
But even in quiet Monsey, I always operated with background noise, mostly of my own volition and choice. I always listened to classical music while writing my articles and books. I still do so today. In fact, as I am writing this article I am listening to a flute concerto composed by Georges Telemann as background music. Background sound has become such an integral part of my life that I find it difficult to function well in complete silence. We humans are strange creatures.
During my years of Talmud study at the yeshiva in Chicago, the major part of the learning day was spent in the study hall where over a hundred young men at a time studied, debated and argued with each other at high volume and loud frequency. On the other hand the library room of the yeshiva was an island of tranquility and absolute silence enforced by a most capable but periodically stern librarian,
Yet try as I did on many occasions, I was unable to study well in the quiet library room while I acclimated myself quite well in the noisy quarrelsome study hall. I think that it was this experience that influenced my penchant for background noise even today whenever I write or prepare for a public presentation.
As far as I am concerned, a reasonable volume of background noise sharpens the senses and helps focus one’s mind and thoughts. At least it does so for me, hence the background flute concerto music wafting through the confines of my room as I write this article. The concerto is probably much more timeless than is this article but no matter. I think that background noise is very important in everyone’s life whether we truly notice or realize it.
The Talmud also refers to the presence of constant sounds in our lives as Jews. Every day there are recurrent echoes from Mount Sinai that goad and provoke us to improve and honor Torah and Jewish tradition. The customs and simple acts that constitute the Jewish way of life – thrice-daily prayer, charitable acts of kindness and consideration towards others, regular Torah study, etc. – are all the factors that compose the sounds of our lives.
In one of the films produced by Destiny Foundation I pointed out the importance of background music in a film. Without the background themes the film is dull and uninspiring. Even at the beginning of the last century, in the days of silent films, all of the movie houses engaged a pianist to provide a musical backdrop for the film.
The Torah also requires a background to make it meaningful and memorable in our individual lives. The Torah calls itself a song, a melody, and not only a set of laws and disciplines. Without hearing this background music, the Torah also becomes dull and lacks its natural verve and vibrancy. That is why the rabbis insisted that Jews feel the freshness and renewal of excitement and novelty regarding Torah every new day of their lives.
The Torah must be today and not merely yesterday. As such, it requires a strong and insistent background melody to carry it into the hearts, minds and actions of Jews at all times and in all places. And that makes background sounds a matter of holiness and eternity and not just noise.