Muting and Unmuting

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People ask me, every day, what were the hard parts of this last year for me as a rabbi. I have to tell you that while this has been a very difficult year for all of us, I have lot less to complain about than many others. But I do want to tell you about an issue that has affected me as a rabbi every single day and night of the last year, that continues to puzzle me: the issue of muting and unmuting.

What’s the issue? We’re having a service. I am standing here at this lectern and I see that there are fifteen or twenty screens with people. If they are all muted, I am standing here and I am the only one singing and talking and reading. I want to hear everybody. But there are just a few problems. There is a five second time lag that makes everyone sound like a barbershop quartet in a junkyard on the moon. This person is unmuted and has a dog that is barking at the mailman. This person is getting phone calls and either they answer or the answering machine answers for them, and it’s all disruptive. So muting is bad, because we can’t hear anyone, and unmuting is bad, because we can hear every-one. Sometimes we have to mute people for the sake of everybody else. Sometimes people get insulted. Sometimes we mute them, they unmute themselves, we mute again; they unmute again. It’s a battle of clicks. It’s like Dueling Mutations.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. You see, in Judaism, we don’t have trouble deciding on what is right and wrong. We know what’s right and we know what’s wrong. And we even know that you can do everything right and still get it wrong.

What Judaism struggles with is when you have two good principles and they come into conflict. Like wanting everyone to pray together and sing and feel part of something and finding that it is impossible to pray when you hear dogs barking and answering machines.

So we do what we’ve been doing this at every service, muting a lot, asking the people who are participating to unmute for their parts, asking everyone at points and at the end of the service to unmute.

I think about the struggle between muting and unmuting in another, more important way. In our lives, when should we talk and when should we not talk is a constant struggle. If you’re a parent, when do you say something to your child, and when do you stay quiet and let them figure it out for themselves? If you have a friend who’s making a mistake, what do you say and not say? When you’re a member of a community, or a citizen of a country, when do you push your opinions on others, and when do you hold back?

If you think about it in this way, we are constantly deciding what to say and what not to say. I can tell you one of the rules I live by: If you say it, it’s hard to take it back. If you don’t say it, you can usually say it at another time when you’ve had time to consider whether you really should say it. I remember once being very angry at someone for something they had done. It took every bit of restraint I had not to call him and express my anger. But I didn’t say anything, and I came around to understand why he had done what he’d done. It was one of the best things I ever didn’t say.

Unmuting and muting. I know people who say every single thing that comes into their minds. No filter, whatsoever.

They are very difficult people to be with. What makes us think that we have to tell everything that occurs to us? Are we Moses who is so smart and so wise that we need the world to know all of our thoughts?

As we have coped during the time of this pandemic, we have struggled with contradictory aspects of our new reality. We are immersed, as never before, in a virtual world of communication. We connect with people we have not talked to in ages. We share articles and messages. We have discovered new powers of, and new needs, for speaking.

But just as we have learned to “chat,” we have also learned to “mute” and “unmute” ourselves. We are pulled between experiences of increased communication and of silence. Sometimes these silences are imposed upon us, and sometimes they are silences we dearly miss. We have endured the burden of imposed silences – whether of sorrow, anxiety, loneliness, pain or outrage – and yet we know that there are good silences, too, silences of tranquility and peace.

Like anything in life, like participating in a zoom service, we have to find balance. We have to find a balance between saying too much and not speaking out when we should. Every day, we pray for the wisdom to say and what not to say. It’s one of the challenges of being human.

Rabbi Scolnic