Rosh Hashanah is called “yom t’ruah,” a day of loud sound, because of the shofar’s blasts. But silence haunts the Torah readings for this holiday, multiple silences that grow louder as, in our own time, more women speak out about abuse.
There is Sarah’s long silence, the silence of a lifetime spent in the shadow of Abraham’s fervor. That silence is first broken when she offers her maid Hagar to her husband – “Perhaps I will have a son through her,” Sarah reasons.
The silence is broken again when Sarah blames Abraham for upending their household by impregnating the Egyptian maid whom Sarah now finds haughty.
Sarah’s silence in the Torah text is broken only once more in an outburst of jealous anger aimed at Hagar herself, now the mother of Yishmael – the son whom Hagar has borne for her masters Abraham and Sarah.
It is not difficult to imagine Hagar at one time having been Sarah’s confidante in a household where silence, secrecy, and lack of consent on the part of the women have been taken for granted. Twice, for example, during the long marriage of Abraham and Sarah, Abraham expects Sarah to keep silent and pose as his sister rather than his wife, and then to offer herself to a powerful ruler in order to save his own life.
As for Hagar, she presumably is not asked but rather told to become Abraham’s concubine and a surrogate mother on Sarah’s behalf. In our text, Hagar also remains silent when Abraham, in order to appease Sarah, hands her only a little bread and a soon-to-be emptied water-skin and sends her away into the wilderness with her son Ishmael.
The silence continues when Abraham is tested by a divine demand to sacrifice Isaac, the son for whom he and Sarah have longed. Abraham leads Isaac away – silently – from an unsuspecting Sarah. According to midrash, when Sarah learns of the aborted sacrifice, she dies of shock, her cries of pain reflected in a midrashic observation that equates the wail of the shofar with the final sounds of her life: “She uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts of the shofar.” (Leviticus Rabbah 20.2)
These stories of silence and its consequences remind us of how silence can feel like a dire need not only on the part of those committing abuse but also for those suffering from it. Keeping silent about family abuse was once an accepted cultural norm. Today we understand that keeping silent for the sake of keeping the peace is often merely a façade of agreeability. Shtika k’hoda-ah, the Talmudic sages teach, “silence presumes consent.” But silence also permits and enables injustice and suffering.
When fear prohibits an individual’s outcry, shalom bayit, peace in the home, cannot truly exist. A home where one is afraid to speak out and speak up is not filled with the enlightening glow of shalom bayit; it is a home robbed of light.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur call us to speech, not to silence. In our congregations sit people suffering from the toll taken by abuse and from the silence that for so long has surrounded it. We need to name this doubled pain. The following prayer, a misheberach created for the High Holidays, is intended to break open the silence. We hope it will be recited in every community as this New Year begins.
“May the One who blessed our ancestors Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, provide protection, compassion, care and healing for all those who have known violence and abuse within their families. May those who have been harmed find pathways to understanding and wholeness and those who have caused harm find their way to repentance and peace. May our community be a source of support for those who have suffered in silence or shame. May those whose homes have become places of danger find their way to a sukkat shalom, a shelter of safety and peace of mind. Amen.”
The above was co-authored by Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI’s vice president of programs and new initiatives.