September 18, 2019

Hearing the Still, Small Voice – #Elul 9

When is a whisper louder than a scream?

During these weeks leading up to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are a group of bloggers posting about a different spiritual theme each day during the Hebrew month of Elul, as part of a collective preparation for the days of awe ahead of us.

Today’s theme is “Hear”, and I have always associated that word with the well-known phrase, “hearing the still, small voice of God” but I didn’t really know where it came from.

A quick Goggle search revealed the phrase comes from biblical account of Elijah the prophet.  According to, “After a dramatic confrontation with idol worshippers and an ensuing frustrating lesson in the fickleness of crowds, Elijah ran away in despair to Mount Sinai. He searched for the voice of his Creator but it was not to be found booming through an earthquake or thundering through a storm. He heard instead a still small voice, the still small voice of the Almighty.”

In our noisy, cluttered modern world, our attention is drawn to whoever is screaming the loudest. The “talking heads” on television drown each other out while speaking over each other’s voices. Obnoxious drivers lean into their car horns to show their displeasure. And children quickly learn that they can get what they want faster if they scream as loud as they can instead of speaking quietly.

But for many people with disabilities and other cognitive difficulties, speaking up loudly enough and with adequate articulation to be fully understood by strangers is difficult, if not impossible. There are many with developmental disabilities such as people with non-verbal autism who are only able to communicate by using a letter board or with assistive devices. Some with intellectual disabilities need to point to pictures or icons. And for many who are deaf, using sign language is the way they communicate. Too often, people who can’t “speak” are marginalized and ignored.

Our spoken language basis extends to how we view animal intelligence. I recently listened to the audio book version of “We Are Completely Besides Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote a fictionalized account of a husband and wife team of psychologists who tried to raise a baby chimpanzee in their home as if she were human, along with their own child. Although the chimp, Fern, is successful at mastering simple sign language, the researchers discount Fern's use of it as true intelligence because it doesn’t mirror spoken human language patterns.

As Fowler said in a later interview: “As I researched these experiments, I was struck by how long it took for someone to note that, if we were interested in chimps and communication, it was more relevant to ask how they communicated with each other than how well they could learn to communicate with us….The primacy of the human and the priority given to human forms of intelligence and communication was largely unquestioned.”

A still, small voice is reaching out to us –take the time to unplug our ear buds, silence our cell phones and try hard to hear what those around us are saying, by words or other means.