Master the Art of Silence
by Miri Korbman
In what has to be the original biblical archetype for tragic love stories, Parshas Va’Yeitzei poignantly recounts how Yaakov escaped to Charan, met and fell in love with Rachel, and ultimately married Leah, her sister - working for fourteen years to finally marry them both. It is important to pause and consider the details of this story (29:10-11, 18): Yaakov’s superhuman strength in removing the stone from atop the well, his passionate and forlorn embrace upon meeting her, his unparalleled love for and desire to marry her and willingness to subject himself to fourteen years’ indentured servitude to gain her hand in marriage. All of these details are integral to understanding the Torah’s perspective on love, which requires pages of exploration in itself. Yet these details are also important in building the context in which we gain insight into the unique and incredible character of Rachel Imeinu, from whom we can learn innumerable lessons not only about love, but also about the purposeful, incredible power of silence.
It is clear that Rachel and Yaakov felt similarly toward each other. We can extrapolate that the love, mentioned several times in this Parsha (29:18, 20, 30), was mutual. The Midrash (Eicha Raba, introduction) describes how Rachel came before Hashem in defense of the Jewish people on their way down to Bavel; her entreaty that He allow the Jews to return to E”Y is the only one to which Hashem responds in the affirmative. Her argument? That she gave to Leah the signs that she and Yaakov composed to preempt Lavan’s trickery, in order to spare her sister embarrassment. This story of Rachel’s sacrifice, her willingness to literally give up the love of her life in order to spare her sister’s pain and shame is one of the most famous in our history. And yet, let us look at the Pesukim and how the story unfolds in the Pshat.
The Pasuk (29:23-25) only describes that Lavan brought Leah to Yaakov to wed, and that Yaakov did not realize until the morning that it was Leah, and not Rachel, whom he had married. How can this be? And when, then, did Rachel give Leah the signs? Furthermore, Leah herself does not seem to know that anything has not gone according to plan; later in the Parsha (30:14) when Reuven brings the Dudaim to his mother, Rachel asks Leah for some of the Dudaim, and Leah exclaims, “was it not enough that you stole my husband?!” Clearly, she is not aware of the irony of this statement. What can this mean?
It is clear from Leah’s astonishing response to Rachel regarding the Dudaim that Leah had no idea that her sister spared her mortifying embarrassment. Rather, Rachel discussed with Leah the issues pertaining to Taharas HaMishpacha, which she and Yaakov had decided would be their secret signs, without ever disclosing the significance of this knowledge. When Yaakov asked Leah basic questions regarding these laws, she was able to answer them, as Rachel would have done, and was none the wiser that in fact she was privy to “secret” information. Furthermore, for years after Yaakov and Leah wed, Rachel never disclosed to her sister that she had nearly sacrificed her relationship with Yaakov in order to spare her sister embarrassment. She kept quiet, even when Leah criticized her, and never revealed her greatest merit.
The greatness of Rachel’s actions is twofold. First, she knew exactly when to speak up, when to reveal information that would be critical to her sister’s well being. She gave over the signs, revealing a secret, in order to protect her sister’s dignity and reputation. Secondly, however, she also knew how and when to remain silent in order to preserve the impact of this selfless deed.
The Gemara in Chullin (89A) tells us, “the world is sustained in the merit of those who stay silent in an argument.” Further, Rebbi Akiva teaches in Pirkei Avos (3:13) that silence is a fence for wisdom (Siyag LiChachma Shtika). Silence is clearly an incredibly important Middah to master. And yet, as with most Middos, mastering the art of silence is not only about keeping quiet, but also about knowing when to speak.
This trait, the ability to know when to speak up and when to keep quiet, is in actuality an aspect of Tznius, modesty. Modesty is about understanding the precise weight and measure of a thing, an understanding of when one deed, behavior, or relationship is appropriate, and when it is not. Recognizing when to speak and when to be silent requires mindfulness of the moment, and an understanding of what the moment calls for in order to be most effective in accomplishing a given goal in line with one’s values.
This Middah, intrinsic to Rachel Imeinu, was passed on to her offspring, as well. Esther HaMalka, a direct descendant of Binyamin, the son of Rachel, exemplified this Middah perfectly in the Megillah. The Pasuk (Esther 2:10) tells us that Esther did not reveal her nation or birthplace to Achashveirosh. This is a tremendous thing that Esther did - not only did she refuse to tell the king presumably expected information about herself, she also continued to keep her silence at great personal risk for ten years! Just as Rachel continued to keep silent about her sacrifice for her sister despite the flack she got for it, Esther, too, kept her identity a secret, despite probable pressure to reveal it.
The epitome of this Middah, however, is actually in the moment when Esther chooses to break her silence, and tells Achashveirosh that Haman is plotting to destroy her and her people. Through this brave and wise action, Esther is able to save the Jewish people from a terrible fate. In fact, Mordechai himself must remind Esther of the importance of knowing when to speak and when to keep silent when he admonishes her (Esther 4:14), “im hacharesh tacharishi ba’eis hazos” - if you keep quiet now, salvation will come from another source and you and your father’s household will be forgotten!
Mastering the art of silence requires the ability to step back and ascertain what the moment calls for. Sometimes, speaking up is important, critical to survival. Other times, however, it is more effective to hold back. When a friend is speaking to us, venting about a difficulty they are having, it can be tempting to jump in and reassure, or problem-solve, or offer our own one-up “well, you know what I’ve been dealing with…” In such cases, our breaking the silence dismisses their problems and erases the opportunity to actively listen and take in what they are saying. Similarly, we might find we are tempted to post or text or otherwise publicize something that perhaps is better kept to ourselves. Taking a moment to pause and consider, is now the time to share, or to withhold from sharing, to speak or to be silent, can make the difference between effective and ineffective communication.
This week, practice silence in the ways that feel most relevant to your personal growth. Remember, this is an art that is inherent to our spiritual DNA. We all have the power to master the art of silence.