The pen is more powerful than the sword, yet there is something more powerful than the pen:
We live in talkee-talk world. We have talk radio, tv talk shows, news-talk and various other channels of people talking or communicating in one various form or another (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn). Reacting, responding and reciprocating is the name of the game. We have a lot to say and we live in a world where the reaction of others is beyond expected; it is mandatory — in the form of a like or a comment; the least one can offer without upsetting others is submitting an emoji.
Our parsha, Vayetze, is from a different world — not because of the technological differences but because of a distinctive value system — a world where speech is not something taken lightly. One’s reaction through words requires thought, evaluation and most of all a raison d’etre — an existential purpose. To illustrate, let us look at the scene the Torah presents. When Jacob fell in love with Rachel, he commits to work for her father seven full years to earn her hand in marriage. The years pass and once Jacob is ready to marry his beloved Rachel, his father-in-law-to-be puts forth Leah, the older sister, as the bride. The midrash (Tanhuma Vayetze 6) tells us that Rachel saw the presents that Jacob sent her being given to her sister Leah, and she said nothing. She remained silent. This ability to remain silent under a very difficult situation is a moral personality trait that is passed down to Rachel’s descendants. Her son, Benjamin also had this quality. It is hinted by the name of the stone that represents the tribe of Benjamin, Yashpeh, Jasper. Yashpeh means “there is a mouth.” An image to help understand this is a faucet. A faucet that does not close, is not a faucet; it is a hose. If a mouth cannot be closed, it is not a mouth. The first king of Israel, Saul, a descendent of Rachel, also inherited this ability (1 Sam. 10.16). Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia, also had this special ability (Esther 2.20).
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel noticed that the best moral virtue is the ability to be silent. This he learned by watching the Sages with whom his father, Rabban Gamliel, kept company.
The Gemara discusses the best families one should marry into if possible (Kiddushin 71a). One criteria was a family from Babylon and how can one tell if a person is from Babylon? If he speaks Babylonian. Yet now there are many fakers — that is — they speak Babylonian but are not from there. The Gemara’s advice is “follow those who are silent.” One who can keep quiet during a fight is the best to marry, it is a sign that the person comes from a good family. The Gemara in another place (Hulin 69a) states that the best art for a human being is to make oneself mute. It is an art to remain silent for all communication is an art form.
This powerful quality requires self control, self confidence and most of all self awareness. We can imagine how emotionally challenging it was for Rachel to accept the state of affairs with her father’s actions. Saying something would only hurt her sister. She chose to remain quiet. Remaining silent is not a lack of what to say; it is not a sign of weakness. It is just the opposite. It is a sign of strength — a sign of thought process that leads to an act of silence.
Back to our world — what would our world look like if there were more of us who would take on silence when it is appropriate? Instead of being dragged into an argument, why not remain silent? The more we value our words and our speech, the more we will remain silent. The more we remain quiet, the more powerful our words will be when we speak.
Rabbi Dr. Guy Matalon is currently the Director of the Mechina Program at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. Previously, he served as the Jewish Federation of Omaha Professor of Judaic Studies and founding director of the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. For comments, questions, or anything else: [email protected]