Lisa Malik (Suburban JCC Bnai Aaron)
Silence Is Not Always Golden
1. Esther kept her Jewish identity a secret during the 'beauty pageant' in Shushan.
In the Megillah, we read,"Esther had not said what family or
people she came from" (Esther 2:10).
It is implied that Esther's silence enabled her to be chosen as the new queen of King Achashverosh and, ultimately, to save the Jews of Shushan from genocide. A midrash on Parashat VaYetze tells us that Esther's ability to keep silent was a virtue: the midrash implies that 'silence is golden'. For keeping silent when she found out that Yaakov was tricked into marrying her sister Leah, Rachel was rewarded with descendants who also knew when to keep silent: Benjamin, Saul, and Esther.
But is silence always golden? Is silence such a virtue?
While silence seems to be valued in the midrash on Parashat Vayetze, there is another type of silence that is frowned upon in Judaism. The rabbinic perspective on this other type of silence is encapsulated in the saying:
Shetikah k'hodaah damya. Silence is considered similar to
admission. That is, it is irresponsible to be silent in situations that call for speech or
The sentiment expressed by this phrase is reflected in many biblical and rabbinic texts (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 39, Esther 4:14, Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:8, Gittin 55b-56a).
Even in Megillat Esther, the very text which seems to value Esther's silence, Mordecai accuses Esther of being irresponsibly silent, when he says to her,
"If you are silent at this time, help may come from another Place, but you and your father's house will perish.
And who knows whether you attained your royal position for just this moment."
Mordecai goads Esther to action, shaking her out of her complacency, by telling her that is irresponsible of her to be silent at this time.
The lesson of Mordecai's statement is: Shetikah k'hodaah damya. ("Silence is considered
similar to admission")
Esther's situation called for speech and action. To have done nothing, to have remained silent, would have been acknowledging her compliance with Haman's decree. If Esther had done nothing, if Esther had not risen to the occasion, she would have failed the Jewish people; she would have been responsible for their annihilation. If Esther had remained silent, the Jews of the Persian Empire would have been wiped off the face of this earth.
2. A similar lesson may be learned from an aggadah in the Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a):
"On account of what happened with Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was
One day, a man hosted a banquet and he sent his servant to invite his friend Kamtza. By mistake, the servant invited his enemy (with a similar-sounding name) Bar Kamtza. When the host noticed Bar Kamtza at his party, he was extremely angry.
- He said to Bar Kamtza, "Get out of here."
- Bar Kamtza pleaded with the host and said,, "Please don't embarrass me in front of all of these people. Since I'm here already, let me stay and I'll pay for my food and drink."
- The host replied, "No."
- Again, Bar Kamtza pleaded with the host and said, "Let me stay and I'll pay for half the cost of the banquet."
- The host replied again, "No."
- Again, Bar Kamtza pleaded with the host and said, "Let me stay and I'll pay the entire cost of this banquet."
- The host remained intransigent and coldly replied, "No."
Then he took Bar Kamtza and threw him out of his house.
At this point, Bar Kamtza was embarrassed and furious- not only at the host, but also at the Rabbis who were guests at the party.
In the words of the Talmud, "The Rabbis just sat there and did nothing."
So, to get revenge on the host and the Rabbis, Bar Kamtza decided to inform against the Jews to the Romans.".
In the aggadah, one thing leads to another and the Romans destroy the Temple and Jerusalem.
3. One of the lessons of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza aggadah is:
Shetikah k'hodaah damya. ("Silence is considered similar to admission")
It is irresponsible to be silent in situations that call for speech or
By standing idly by, by not intervening, by failing to prevent or chastise the host for humiliating Bar Kamtza, the Rabbis were tacitly admitting that they approved of the host's actions.
Like Megillat Esther, the aggadah of Kamtza & Bar Kamtza teaches us that is irresponsible to be silent in situations that call for speech or action.
4. Mordecai's words to Esther and the aggadah about Kamtza & Bar Kamtza came to mind when I went to Israel with my family during the height of the last intifada in 2002. One day, we went to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv (Beyt Ha-Tefutzot). We were in the room that houses the Shoah memorial and I started to read out loud the words on the wall:
"In the year 1936, Adolf Hitler began his campaign against the Jews of Europe? He exterminated 6,000,000 Jews, including 1 1/2 million children. And, as the Jews of Europe desparately fought for their lives, the rest of the world stood idly by in silence".
My husband turned to me and said, "Do you know what the saddest thing is about this exhibit?" It was not the words on the wall or the mournful background music? It was the fact that the museum was virtually empty, just like the rest of Israel- empty because tourists were nowhere to be seen or heard. You could palpably feel the absence of American tourists throughout Israel-in the streets, the restaurants, the shops, the hotels, religious sites, tourist
attractions — all silent and empty.
As I stood in the silent, empty halls of the Diaspora Museum and as I reflected upon the silence and emptiness of Israel during the intifada, the Aramaic saying went through my mind:
Shetikah k'hodaah damya. ("Silence is considered similar to admission")
Silence & inaction are acts of irresponsibility . By saying nothing, by doing nothing during the Shoah, many people acknowledged what was going on in Eastern Europe and didn't do anything to stop it. The silence of bystanders during the Shoah was eerily reflected in the silence of the Diaspora Museum. Today, when we fail to support Israel and the Jewish people by speaking up when people make anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic comments, we too are being irresponsible.
By saying and doing nothing, we are neglecting our responsibilities as Jews to ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
5. As I stood at the Shoah exhibit in the Diaspora Museum, I asked myself: What would happen today if the State of Israel ceased to exist? What would happen to the victims of anti-Semitism worldwide? Where would they go?
Where would we go? Would the rest of the world stand idly by in silence?
Many American Jews feel a false sense of security, believing that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past. But, unfortunately, it is alive and well— and living in Israel, in France, in Great Britain,". and in America. In contemporary times, anti-Semitism often rears its ugly head in the form of anti-Zionism. In recent years, it has become acceptable, even politically correct, to denounce the State of Israel. During the last intifada, there was a sharp decline in tourism in Israel. Some people opted not to go to Israel out of fear; others opted not to go because they were making a political statement.
During the intifida, Israel had to defend herself against increasing terrorist activity. Rather than being depicted as murderers, Palestinian suicide bombers were often depicted in the news as "martyrs" or "freedom fighters".
The Israelis' treatment of Palestinians in the modern State of Israel has been compared to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust. But, last spring, the Palestinian political party, Fatah, held a rally for student leaders at Hebron University; at the rally, Fatah leaders collectively struck the "Heil Hilter' salute that is universally associated with Nazi Germany. Identification with Nazi German practice, even in a symbolic manner, is cause for concern, to say the least. As for Hamas, the present leadership in the newly constituted Palestinian parliament, their members have made their anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic stance abundantly clear.
And, lest you think that the Middle East is the only locus for anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, let's look at some hate crimes our own backyard. Just last year, Lower Merion High School was defaced with swastikas two times in the spring. Flyers for a meeting of the Israel Club were defaced with red swastikas. Additional swastikas were found on the doors of the band room, chorus room, and the office of the school newspaper.
And, just last week, some students from Haverford High School who are members of Suburban JCC-Bnai Aaron into my office to tell me about anti-Semitism in their school. Several teenagers have been called "dirty Jew" by their classmates. One of the high school students had pennies thrown at her feet by own of her non-Jewish classmates. Some students say that they feel they are being penalized when they take off school for the Jewish holidays or when they miss rehearsals or practices on Shabbat. Last year's Haverford High School graduation was scheduled on the holiday of Shavuot. None of the students' families spoke up to the school board when the calendar was established to notify them of this conflict; none of the families felt comfortable asking the school district to consider rescheduling graduation. Many families in our own community and are afraid to call attention to their Jewish identity.
In the second chapter of the Megillah, we may praise Esther for being silent about her Jewish identity. Perhaps Esther's silence was praiseworthy because it enabled her to be selected by King Achashverosh as the Queen of the Persian Empire.
However, not all silence is understandable:
- Esther would have been condemned by Mordecai ands the Jews of Shushan would have been doomed had Esther remained silent about Haman's anti-Semitism and his genocidal plot against the Jews.
- The Rabbis of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza aggadah are to be condemned for standing idly by in silence as the host humiliated Bar Kamtza. It was their silent refusal to act that eventually led to the Destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century..
- Looking back at the Shoah, we condemn those who stood idly by in silence as 6 million Jews were murdered.
- Today, we must not be silent in the face of anti-Semitism or anti-Israel bias in the media and in our local communities. When it comes to our Jewish identity and to our support of Israel, we must not make the same mistake as the Rabbis of the 1st century or the bystanders of the mid-20th century.
We must speak up-if only in the moderate form of revealing our Jewish identities to our employers and public school teachers. Because we are Jewish, we sometimes have to miss work, school, choir rehearsal, or play practice. We can speak up in favor of excused religious absences; perhaps we can even get our school districts or to cancel schools and practices on some Jewish holidays.
We must speak up.
We must not be silent..
May we all remember the cautionary words of the Rabbis:
Silence is like tacit acceptance.
Shetikah k'hodaah damya.
Rabbi Lisa Malik is the Rabbi of
SJCC Bnai Aaron
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