The Sounds of Silence

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

D'Var Torah By: Pamela Wax

Focal Point

Adonai appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, "My lords [Adonai], if it please you, do not go on past your servant." (Genesis 18:1-3)

D'var Torah

Not all silences are equal. There is angry silence, and there is stymied silence. There's silence that is imposed externally by oppression or trauma, and there is the holy silence of contemplation and inner quiet. The latter is a silence that is chosen, practiced, and rewarded with wisdom, creativity, and a sense of God's presence.

Although this week's Torah portion begins with holy silence, it also contains some rather disturbing silences. For instance, while much is made in commentaries about Sarah's laughter (Genesis 18:12), rarely is it noted that she does not laugh aloud: She laughs to herself and only finds her own true voice after Isaac is born. She is also silenced in the episode with Abimelech (Genesis 20), having been implored by Abraham to tell the king a half-truth about their marriage. Furthermore, Lot's wife, who is unnamed, never utters a word about the destruction of her home and becomes fossilized in her unvoiced pain (Genesis 19:26). The text is also noticeably silent about Lot's willingness to sacrifice his daughters to a rapacious mob and about the incest that ultimately takes place between him and his traumatized daughters (Genesis 19:8, 30-38).

Later in the parashah, although it is Hagar who cries out in Genesis 21:16, we are informed that "God heard the cry of the boy" (Genesis 21:19). Rabbi Mendl of Viorki asked why the Torah said such a thing when we have no indication that Ishmael cried out at all. His answer was "that sometimes one can cry out without uttering a syllable, and it is that cry which pierces the heavens, although only God hears it" (Torah Gems, volume 1, p. 168). Thus Ishmael's silence was louder than words. This is reminiscent of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav's teaching that "you can shout loudly in a 'still small voice' (I Kings 19:12). You can scream without anyone hearing you shouting with this soundless still small voice. Anyone can do this. Just imagine the sound of such a scream in your mind. Depict the shout in your imagination exactly as it would sound. Keep this up until you are literally screaming with this soundless 'still small voice.'" (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom, Sichos HaRan 16, p. 118). Interestingly, then, God responded to Ishmael's silence rather than to Hagar's plaintive plea.

And what about Isaac's silence in this parashah? Isaac initially asks questions like "Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?" as he and his father approach Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:8), but Abraham's betrayal ultimately silences him. Isaac never speaks to his father again.

Despite all of these painfully disturbing silences in Vayeira, the Torah portion opens with a holy silence. Abraham is sitting at the opening of the tent in the heat of the day when God appears to him. Does God appear unexpectedly, or was Abraham anticipating God's visit by meditating in an attempt to draw God's presence to him? Torah commentators have been troubled by this opening verse because it is the only instance in the Torah of God's revelation without a particular message, command, promise, or blessing. Therefore, the theophany has often been unsatisfactorily interpreted as a bikur cholim, "visit to the sick," after Abraham's circumcision, which occurred at the end of the previous chapter.

I would contend, however, that this revelation is a perfect example of "show" rather than "tell." While our Sages say that "the deed of hospitality is greater than the welcoming of the Divine Presence" (Talmud, Shabbat 127a), thereby belittling Abraham's communion with God in favor of the hospitality to the three visitors that immediately follows, perhaps it was because of Abraham's communion with God that he was able to offer hospitality so willingly and openheartedly. Let us understand Abraham's fulfillment of the mitzvah of hospitality as the direct result of God's revelation to him, for the goal of holy silence is not a withdrawal from community in favor of a relationship only with God but rather a fuller, more loving engagement with community, informed by one's relationship with God. As Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl taught, "Might we not say that in the performing of that commandment [of hospitality] one also evokes the presence of the Shechinah? Commandment, after all, is called mitzvah because it joins together the part of God that dwells within the person with the infinite God beyond" (Upright Practices, The Light of the Eyes, Ramsay, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982, p. 136).

While most commentators read Adonai in Genesis 18:3 as an address to the three men/angels ("my lords"), Menahem Nahum considers Adonai to be a reference to God ("my Lord"), as it normally is, asserting that Abraham is asking God to remain with him during his encounter with the three men: " Adonai, pass not away, I pray You, from Your servant. There, too, may I remain attached to You so that this not be an empty mitzvah. Be with me so that I may perform the mitzvah in such a state that it, too, be a 'greeting of the Shechinah'" (ibid., p. 137). Abraham understood that everything he did in his life was in partnership with God and was informed by his relationship with God.

Abraham knew how to ignore external noise, the hustle-bustle of a busy household that demanded his attention, and to focus instead inward on what is truly God's voice, as discovered through meditation, silence, perhaps long walks,and certainly long sits at the door of his tent, contemplating the desert. However, his practice was not to disengage from the world but rather to engage himself ever more fully and intimately in it. It was the calm learned through his contemplative practice that allowed Abraham to change course immediately when the angel told him not to harm Isaac: A lesser man may not have been as flexible or as ready to hear God's voice.

A meditative lifestyle does not necessitate living in a hermetically sealed cave. What it does involve is the discipline to give oneself silent time each day in which to discern God's voice.

May we all learn to listen to the sounds of silence, ultimately finding the true voice with which God speaks and with which we ourselves can speak.

By the Way

  • To You silence is praise. (Psalms 65:2)
  • Silence and meditation are the rungs on which one climbs to the Higher Worlds. (Harry Sackler, "The Tzaddik's Journey," Reflex, November 1927)
  • The world would be much happier if people were as fully able to keep silence as they are able to speak. (Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, 1677)
  • All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing of better service than silence. (Pirkei Avot 1:17)
  • A fence to wisdom is silence. (Pirkei Avot 3:17)
  • When Mendel was in Kotzk, the rabbi of that town asked him, "Where did you learn the art of silence?" He was on the verge of answering the question, but then he changed his mind and practiced his art. (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, New York: Schocken Books, 1948, p. 301)

Your Guide

  1. In what ways is silence a form of praise?
  2. Think about the silent Amidah in your synagogue. If it is not truly silent, when and how do you find time to be silent with God?
  3. Think about the silences in your own life. Which forms of silence have been your teachers?
  4. Consider using the texts in the "By the Way" section above as a daily meditation for silent prayer.

At the time of this writing in 2002, Rabbi Pamela Wax was the assistant director of the UAHC Department of Adult Jewish Growth in New York, NY.

Reference Materials

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110

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