There is—as Ecclesiastes teaches— a time to be silent and a time to speak. Our challenge is to figure out which is the right response in any given situation.
Lately, I have been pondering the nature of silence. On Sunday, I will leave for my annual five day retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. This is a place of intense quiet and stillness. Words are few and far between. The daily monastic liturgy of the hours is filled with intense silences, and the red rock cliffs that surround the abbey inspire a kind of hushed awe. No one speaks after 7pm each night, and the communal meals are eaten in complete silence.
When I am there, I am often struck by how much I love this stillness. I am, after all, a rabbi, the representative of a tradition that places a premium on words. In Genesis, God creates the world with language, and we, too, shape our worlds with the words that we speak.
And speak we must. As the AIDS activists in the 1980s reminded us, in the face of oppression, silence = death. Secrecy is the breeding ground of complicity and evil. As Louis Brandeis noted, sunlight—speech—is the best disinfectant. We use language to create community, fight persecution, cement relationships, and establish our place in the world.
So when do we keep silence and when do we speak? This question lies at the heart of our Torah portion for this week, Vayera. It is filled with silences, both sacred and disquieting. When Sarah hears that she will bear a child at ninety, she laughs inwardly—silently. Lot’s wife, upon looking back at the destruction of her home in Sodom, is turned into an eternally silent pillar of salt. Ishmael and Hagar are banished to the harsh, mute wilderness. And most notably of all, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and raises a slaughtering knife to his throat—and neither father nor son utters a word. The same patriarch who argues fiercely with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah responds with stunning silence when God commands him to offer up his own child.
Torah and life are both full of complexity and paradox. Silence does indeed equal death—but it also equals life. It is both a primary cause of injustice and a source of strength and liberation. Silence is the beginning of wisdom and the font of ignorance, the ladder to heaven and the highway to hell.
May our times, of speech and of silence, be properly aligned, and may we gain insights into this delicate and difficult dance in the week ahead.