For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation. Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.
"A time to be silent and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:7)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, begins with Abraham vocally challenging God and concludes with his silent acquiescence. When the Holy One tells him about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham repeatedly argues: “Will You sweep away the innocent and the guilty? Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Yet just four chapters later, when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham responds with obedient silence.
Why doesn’t Abraham stand up for his own family as he did for the strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah? We don’t know. His passivity is problematic for most of us, as it was for many of our Sages two thousand years ago. But like Ecclesiastes, he seems to believe that there is a time for speech and a time for silence. The trick, of course, is to recognize which is appropriate in any given instance.
Our circumstances are less extreme than Abraham’s, but we, too, wrestle with this question. When do we protest and when do we go along? When should we be silent and when should we speak out?
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr addresses this challenge in what we now know as the Serenity Prayer. I prefer Niebuhr’s earlier formulation, which asks: “Give us the courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
Reflect on occasions when you spoke out and challenged the status quo, and times when you held your tongue. What principles might guide us in deciding which times call for silence and which for speech?