The Small, Thin Sound
Unetaneh toqef is a famous tenth-century Ashkenazi piyyut (liturgical poem), recited on the High Holidays, which describes the great trepidation felt by human beings when they stand in judgment before God.
A line in this piyyut has always piqued my interest—a line that, at first reading, is paradoxical: And a great shofar will be sounded, And a thin, small sound will be heard
We would expect that when a great shofar is blown it would make a loud noise.The expression “a thin, small sound” is taken from 1 Kings, chapter 19. After Elijah triumphs over the prophets of Baal and they are killed, Queen Jezebel seeks his life in revenge. He flees to the wilderness and sinks into a deep depression. There, after many days of solitude, God speaks to him:
He said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.
And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a thin, small sound. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.
The thin, small sound is meant to remind Elijah that justice and truth do not announce themselves amid miracles and fanfare. In order to hear them, one must listen.
There is a comfort in this message: Elijah, you did all you could. If your wonders and portents were not enough, it is their fault, not yours. What can you do? The people simply won't listen. But it is mainly a rebuke: What are you doing here, Elijah? Why did you flee to the wilderness? Why have you given up on the people? The miracles and wonders you performed are not what counts. You have to be with the people, shepherd them from up close—not with sound and fury, but with quiet attention.
Sadly and ironically, Elijah himself is not attentive to the “thin, small sound.” He hears it, but he is incapable of listening to it. When he is asked again, after the storm wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the silence, “Why are you here, Elijah?” he gives the same reply as before, word for word. He still sees himself as a failure, as persecuted, as isolated from the people. Nothing has changed.
There is a tendency to see leadership as something that is loud and highly visible. Leaders are people who are vociferous and charismatic. They have well-developed egos, stand at the top of the pyramid, and lead everyone forward. However, there is also another type of leadership—quiet leadership that does not express itself in a great, booming voice but in a “small, thin sound.”
When people ask me to define leadership, I usually say that it’s a combination of modesty and courage. Sometimes it takes courage to make a “great, loud sound,” but often it takes even more courage to make a “small, thin sound.” Sometimes it takes modesty to hear a “small, thin sound.” But often it takes even more modesty to hear a “great, loud sound.”