(Special guest appearance by Rabbi Emily Meyer!)
What were they thinking? Why didn’t they say anything? Are their words important? Just as every word in Torah is significant, so too are the moments when characters are silent.
This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with a prayer. Isaac beseeches God to grant a child to his wife, Rebecca, but Rebecca herself does not speak. “Isaac prayed to Adonai opposite his wife because she was barren. Adonai accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.”
You wouldn’t be the first to wonder, “Why isn’t it Rebecca praying?”
Some commentators look at the word “opposite” to shed light on this question. Perhaps it means they were praying opposite one another, one in each corner, as Rashi says. Or perhaps it means Isaac was focused on Rebecca during this prayer, as David Kimhi explains: “‘Facing his wife,’ to keep his thoughts focused on her.” Others suggest that it had to do with embarrassment. Either not embarrassing Rebecca because of her infertility or Isaac not being embarrassed himself for his infertility.
Modern scholars have seen Rebecca’s silence as an opportunity to imagine what she might have been thinking. Perhaps she had changed her mind about having children or perhaps her feelings about her husband had changed. Perhaps, imagines Dr. Ellen Frankel in her midrash, “The Five Books of Miriam,” she was simply powerless to speak.
The silences in our text raise questions, and they can inspire empathy as we imagine the thoughts and feelings of those whose voices we cannot hear. Focusing on the silences in our text also forces us to focus upon silences perceived in the modern world. Whose voices are we missing, and what can we do to ensure those voices are heard and valued?