Rabbi Aaron Bisno

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno
Congregation Rodeph Shalom
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A Still Small Voice is Heard

Kol Nidre / Yom Kippur Day 5762
September 26 And 27, 2001

I have so much to say to you. I have so much I want to share.

But I worry that what I have to say may not be up to the expectations built into this moment -- you know, “the-Yom-Kippur-High-Holy-Day-what-did-the-rabbi-talk-about-this-year-sermon-moment.”

I have so much I want to say -- and what I have to say feels enormous.
But it is also very simple. And I am concerned my words will not be sufficient.


When last we gathered as a congregation, we stood on the cusp of a New Year. There was then a new heaviness upon our hearts. At the time it had been only a week since we first saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center laid low.

Together we sustained a horrific blow to our collective psyche. Our sense of personal safety and national security had been attacked. Our trust had been assaulted.

Many of us were quiet on Rosh HaShanah, and yet we came together and stood with one another. As we quietly ushered in the New Year, our standing all together upheld and supported us.

Even as our hearts were heavy, our collective sharing sustained us. It was in this way that our own twin towers -- the spires of our doubt and fear -- were made the smaller.

I am thankful for the experience we shared on Rosh HaShanah. I am thankful for having been able to share it with you.

Today we gather to observe Yom Kippur. We have the benefit of a bit of distance from the events of September 11th, and yet, at least for me, the distance has produced only greater silence. And with distance, the pain has grown deeper.

As the enormity of the attacks on the people in those four planes and at the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon -- as the enormity of the attacks on each of us -- and on our freedoms and way of life -- as all this begins slowly to sink in -- the quiet, the hurt, the sadness -- as all of September 11th sinks in -- the pain has grown deeper.


The Lebanese Christian poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, offers that sorrow carves a groove in us.

And I tell you that the groove sorrow is carving into me feels enormous -- deep and wide. And what I feel I have to say about this groove of sorrow -- that feels enormous, too.

I hear what I have to say inside my head. I feel what I have to say beating in my heart. What I have to say catches in my throat. What I have to say feels enormous.

But then when I think about everything that happened on September 11th in New York and all of what has followed . . . . what I have to say suddenly feels very small.


Judaism calls the part of us that struggles to make itself known “the Qol Dmamah Daqah.” The King James Bible translates the Hebrew phrase as “the still, small voice.”

Literally, the Hebrew means “the sounds of a storm’s last wind,” and originally the phrase referred to the last winds of a tempest. Qol Dmamah Daqah -- the sounds that are heard from the depths of a storm , from the depths of a tempest in the desert wilderness.

Eleventh century French scholar Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, better known as Rashi, moves us away from the notion of Qol Dmamah Daqah. as a referent for an audible, physical sound. And with 20th Century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rashi offers that Qol Dmamah Daqah is better understood not as “the sounds of a storm’s last wind,” but rather as “a voice of silence.”

Now that’s good. The part of us that struggles to make itself known comes not from the outside world, but from our own depths. The part of us that struggles to make itself known is “ the voice of [our own] silence.” If you will, then, the Qol Dmamah Daqah -- is best understood as “the still small voice of silence.”

Our Qol Dmamah Daqah comes from our own depths. It is what animates us. This voice from deep within each of us gives us our affect and emotion. This voice gives us our personalities and our politics.

The Qol Dmamah Daqah is our inner voice -- our still small, silent, inner voice -- and it is what makes each of us different from one another and uniquely ourselves.

On Yom Kippur our Tradition reminds us that we must each find our own Qol Dmamah Daqah -- We must each find our own still small, silent, inner voice --
And we must listen for it. And we must hearken to it.

And though we may feel ourselves bereft and depleted with nothing to say -- or more likely -- though we may feel exhausted at the prospect of giving voice to what we do not yet feel we have the means to articulate --

How we yearn to say what is in our hearts! But it is so painful and sad!

Though we may be bereft, depleted and exhausted -- though it may be difficult -- on Yom Kippur, especially --

We must listen for our Qol Dmamah Daqah -- our still small voice of silence!
And we must hearken to what it tells us to express!

For even if what we would say is silent or very small -- even if it is not said with words -- if it is sincere -- if our Qol Dmamah Daqah is sincere -- our Tradition tells us it will be sufficient. On Yom Kippur, we must trust this is true. It is our tradition.


Our Tradition is rife with stories which describe the journey we are going through now -- that we have been going through since September 11th -- and will be on for the rest of our lives.

In particular, Jewish Fiction and Literature offers many stories which tell of those who came before us -- people like you and me -- who found it difficult to express the words they felt themselves called upon to produce.

There is the story of the joyful worshipper, who while attending services felt compelled to offer a prayer of thanksgiving, yet he knew no prayers. After sitting in silence for some time, while the prayers and words of others swirled about him, the man put his fingers into the corners of his mouth and joyously whistled his thanks.

There is another version of the story which has the man reaching into his pocket for a flute as his neighbors are singing. And in this version, after sitting in silence while others prayed, the man put the instrument to his lips and added melody to their words.

In each case, our Tradition records that the worshippers’ expressions, their voices, if you will, were sincere and, therefore, sufficient.


On Yom Kippur, each of us must look within and search for our voice. On Yom Kippur, as did those in these stories, we must each find a means of expressing our gratitude and our joy.

But as the next story relates, on Yom Kippur, each of us must also look within and find a means of expressing our fears and our doubts, as well.

In this story, a worshipper is frustrated at her inability to pray the words as they are printed on the page. In this story we do not know if this worshipper’s inability to pray is due to an inability to read -- or if she is of failing eyesight -- or whether on this particular year, as may be true for many of us, she simply does not feel she can affirm the prayers as they are printed on the page.

Regardless, in this story, this worshipper sits when it is appropriate to sit, and she stands when it is appropriate to stand. But when it is time to pray, rather than reading the prayers -- for that she cannot see her way to doing -- this woman chooses to recite the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef-bet-gimel -- all the way to the end -- resh-shin-sin-tav -- over and over again with the hope that God will arrange her letters into the prayers she cannot offer.

Our Tradition tells us that because the letters this worshipper offered were a sincere expression of her Qol Dmamah Daqah -- the still, small, silent voice within -- as with the two other worshippers before her -- it happens. According to tradition, God does arrange her letters into the prayers she cannot offer. Her voice is sincere and so it is sufficient.

That our Tradition preserves so many stories of ordinary individuals, worshippers like ourselves -- that our Tradition treasures the stories of such ordinary people, people who in spite of themselves find ways to express that which resides in their hearts if not on their lips -- That our Tradition preserves and treasures such stories should reassure us.

That these stories are retold and renewed time and again should comfort us. For some of us likely see ourselves in those immortalized in the fables of Jewish Tradition. This year, we too may feel we have no letters, no words.

And by the same token, there may be those among us who have not lost the power of speech -- for whom the letters form words, and the words prayers. There may be those among us for whom the “words of their mouths come easily,” but who nonetheless feel discomfited or ill-equipped to listen -- let alone to hearken fully -- to “the meditations of their hearts” -- to their Qol Dmamah Daqah -- to their still, small, silent voice within.

We may all feel from time to time like inarticulate worshippers. This has certainly been my experience. In fact, while I can fill this time with words, as I stand before you, I feel incredibly inarticulate.

It is an enormous task to speak with you -- replete with enormous expectations -- yours and mine! And as I have but a still, small voice to offer, I can only hope that what my Qol Dmamah Daqah urges me to express -- I can only hope it will be sufficient.
You may know that about a month ago I became engaged to be married. I could not be more excited!

And yet in the past two weeks, as I have begun to appreciate the true magnitude of heartache the attacks on New York City and our nation’s capitol unleashed -- as I have come to appreciate how many people were killed so tragicly, so mysteriously, so horribly -- and that so many were young and happy -- and in the prime of their lives --

In a way I had not had to before -- since becoming engaged and then confronting the full reality of September 11th and its aftermath -- I have had to fully come to terms with the fact that the lives of more than 6,000 people vanished -- and with them their dreams and so many of the dreams of their loved ones --

In a way I had not had to before, I have come to understand that so will my relationship with Michelle someday end.

I pray this end will not be for a very long time! It is a terrible thought!
But it is inevitable -- and is precisely the lesson in this tragedy for us all.
It is what our still small inner voices are responding to!

And it is precisely the point of Yom Kippur!
Michelle and I have discussed the reality that in all likelihood one of us will die before the other. And while we pray that our ends, when they come, will be peaceful and many, many years into the future, we cannot know how or when either of us will go.

And yet, the reality remains. Someday our relationship and our lives will end.
And it is true for our parents, and our siblings, and every one of our friends.
It is true for everyone we know. It is true for everyone of us.
And it is true of every relationship every one of us has.
They will all someday end.
And we have no idea when this will happen for any of us!

If we did not understand this -- or if we did not want to acknowledge this before -- before September 11th -- then what we have seen in the past sixteen days -- and make no mistake about it -- we’ve all been witnesses as this lesson has been taught to us most cruelly -- if we did not know that everything we know of life will end, before the events of September 11th unfolded, we surely cannot avoid coming to terms with this fact now!

The events of September 11th necessarily force us either to reaffirm or reprioritize everything we value. There is no avoiding it. Nothing is promised to us. All we prize in life is but lent to us. And at any moment we may be called to surrender all we care about and love most.

The comfort and hope in this cruel lesson?
The comfort and hope is precisely our sorrow’s opposite.

Precisely because of the deep groove sorrow carves in us -- precisely because at any moment we may have to surrender all we care for and love most -- we have an opportunity at every moment -- to bring comfort and hope and joy and meaning into our world!

Precisely because of how deep a groove sorrow carves -- at each and every moment of our lives, we have opportunities to maximize the potential for blessings -- and to continually bring comfort and hope and joy and meaning into our world!

And I must tell you -- and this is the sum of what my Qol Dmamah Daqah tells me to say -- these opportunities -- the ones that are available to us at each and every moment of each and every day of our lives -- The opportunities we have at every moment of our lives to maximize the blessings we share --

These opportunities ARE ENORMOUS!!

How do I know this?

Jewish Tradition and my Qol Dmamah Daqah –

Jewish Tradition and my still, small, silent voice within tells me it’s true.


My prayer for each of us, in this New Year, a year that began with such difficulty –

My prayer for each of us -- and all our loved ones -- is that we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a lifetime full of blessings.

May this New Year see all of us embrace the fullness of the time we are afforded -- filling our days with gentleness and laughter and meaning -- seizing every opportunity to tell those we love how we feel -- to strengthen and affirm others -- to offer kindness and understanding to all with whom we share our lives.

And may each of us always listen for and hearken to -- our Qol Dmamah Daqah -- the still, small, silent voice within us.

For regardless of whether our voice tells us to sing or to spell or to speak or to be silent -- though it be small -- the enormity of the comfort and hope and joy and meaning we can provide one another is matched only by the depth of the grief we feel.

And from out of the depths -- the tempests and storms that rage about us -- and from the deep silences that pulse within -- May a still, small voice be heard -- and may it be sufficient.


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