October 28, 2004
Silence Is Golden
Parshat Vayera (Genisis 18:1-22:24)
A saleswoman, driving home in northern Arizona, sees a Navajo woman hitchhiking, stops the car and invites the Navajo woman to join her.
As they drive, the Navajo woman glances repeatedly at a brown bag on the front seat between them.
"If you are wondering what's in the bag," the saleswoman offers, "it's a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband."
The Navajo woman is silent for a while, then nods several times and says, "good trade."
Chauvinism, of one kind or another, probably has always been with us. This week's Torah reading, Parshat Vayera, for example, appears to lend itself to the charge of male chauvinism. The Torah tells us that the three angels who came to visit Abraham brought news that Sarah would give birth to Abraham's son. Sarah laughed when she heard this, whereupon God chastised her, saying to Abraham, "Why is it that Sarah laughed ... is anything too hard for the Eternal?" (Genesis 18:13-14).
Our sages point out that this sharp response seems strange considering that in last week's Torah reading, when God told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, he, too, laughed, yet in that instance God was not critical at all.
Why the different treatment? Could sexual discrimination be at the heart of the disparity or something else? Perhaps we can find our answer in a suggestion made by the late Hannah Levine, wife of the late saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem.
Hannah Levine suggested that the story of the Shunamit woman and the prophet Elisha mentioned in the haftorah for this week's Torah portion can help solve our question. The story relates that the woman's young son came running in from the field in great pain screaming, "My head! My head!" and then died. The woman took the boy, placed him upon Elisha's bed in the room that she had prepared for the prophet in her home, and set out to find the prophet.
The woman then asked her husband to provide a chariot and driver for her so that she could find Elisha. Puzzled, he wanted to know why, to which she replied with one word, shalom. When she finally reached the prophet, he saw her from afar and sent his assistant to find out if everything was well with her, to which she answered only one word: shalom. The story continues that Elisha knew something was wrong, went back with her and revived the child.
We, however, must wonder why the Shunamit woman responded to each query with the one word, shalom, when everything was the antithesis of peace. Hannah Levine suggests that this teaches us a lesson. For a miracle to work, one cannot drown it in everyday verbiage. Once it is subsumed by ordinary reality, the miracle will not occur.
Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, offers a similar observation in regard to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah's laugh reflected ordinary incredulity. She scoffed. She verbalized. As her words indicate, she did not believe such a promise could be fulfilled.
Abraham's laugh, the Torah tells us, "was in his heart" (Genesis 17:17), but it expressed delight. Not a torrent of words but a simple, heartfelt laugh, reflected firm belief that the promise would be fulfilled.
What a powerful lesson for us who live in this information age, besieged by torrents of words. If we would realize that it is not so much what we say but what we do and what we feel in our hearts that can cause miracles to happen, then, like Abraham, we could influence a whole world for good.
This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 14, 2003.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.