The Sound of Silence – Esther and Family (Ideas #105)

There is an old joke that says that while gentiles leave without saying good-bye, Jews say good-bye without leaving….  We are not known to be a very quiet people. At the same time, this does not mean that silence has no place in our tradition.

One occasion where we see the importance of silence is, ironically, Purim – marked, as it is, by so much noisemaking. For one, our tradition posits that the Purim story might not have ended so happily had Esther not been so silent and, instead, prematurely revealed her Jewish identity.  

The Midrash (Tanchuma Veyetze 6) tells us that silence was a trait Esther inherited from her ancestor Rachel through her son, Binyamin.  It praises Rachel’s silence when Leah impersonated her in order to marry Ya’akov.  The Talmud (Megilla 13b) further explains that Rachel was heroically sensitive to the embarrassment Leah would have felt, had Rachel given her away in such a delicate situation.

I have always wondered about what was so praiseworthy in Rachel’s actions. What about Ya’akov? Though kind to Leah, didn’t Rachel completely betray the trust of her intended husband? Perhaps more careful consideration of the sources will help us get some insight into this.

The Midrash highlights four links in the chain of commendable Binyaminite silence – Rachel, Binyamin, Shaul and Esther. Of the four, the personality most clearly developed in the Biblical text is Shaul. In reading about his life, the rabbis are astounded by the almost fanatical modesty displayed when, among other things, Shaul runs away from power (most notably Tanchuma, Vayikra 3) and treats his inferiors as equals (Tosefta, Berachot 4:17). The rabbis’ close reading of the text reveals that even his mistakes were an outgrowth of his modesty (Yoma 22b). He simply refused to see himself as being better than others. As such, he felt it inappropriate to speak up and impose his will on them.

Turning this perspective back on the story of Rachel, her silence may have been the result of a similar modesty: She could see that Leah agreed with their father’s plan to secretly give her to Ya’akov instead of Rachel, albeit for more altruistic reasons (see my book, Redeeming Relevance, Chapter 2, pp.  49-52). Even though Rachel must have disagreed, who is to say that she was right? Like Shaul and unlike most of us, Rachel did not feel that she was better than her peers. Thus, she heroically decided that she had no right to foil her sister, based only on her personal interests.

Whenever we disagree with someone of equal stature, it is generally just as likely for us to be right as it is for us to be wrong. Nonetheless, human nature being what it is, we feel compelled to argue the merits of our own position and convince our interlocutor. It appears that Rachel and her Binyaminite descendents understood that when a situation is 50/50, the main thing that makes us advance our own idea is personal bias.

The rabbis were also aware that silence could be disastrous in the context of leadership – both Shaul and Esther are criticized for being silent when there was a need to speak and impose their will on others. Nonetheless, the rabbis still express their respect for this highly unusual and commendable trait. Perhaps this is why they tell us that Binyamin was the first of only four individuals who were able to live their entire lives without sinning (Shabbat 55b). Similarly, before Shaul was put into the morally difficult position of king, the rabbis tell us that he, too, had never sinned (Megilla 13b).

R. Shimon ben Gamliel once stated that, even though he heard great wisdom from his teachers, nothing was as good as silence. In other words, it is the eloquence of silence which reveals the most noble wisdom – the heightened understanding of that personal bias is no reason to impose our views on others.