The voices of the Jewish people, and the voices of individual Jews, have tremendous and complex resonance in our culture. Since I used to be a musician, primarily a vocalist, by profession, I’ve always enjoyed the word play of the Hebrew word kol. With the letter kuf it means “voice”; with the letter kaf, “all.”
There are all kinds of voices heard and not heard in the narratives of Abraham, Sarah and their household. Their resonance, or the echoes of their silence, has deeply impacted how we tell our story as a people. Who is in, who is out? Whom do we hear, whom do we ignore, and why?
In the Torah portion called Chayei Sarah (Life of Sarah), the narrative paradoxically begins with her death, signaling that her voice, while stilled for eternity, still reverberates in the stories that follow. Just prior to Chayei Sarah, in the harrowing story at the heart of Parshat Vayera describing the almost-sacrifice of her son, her voice is not recorded at all. Similarly, we don’t hear much from her now adult son. In Chayei Sarah, Isaac appears mutely, meditating in the field at dusk, as his future wife Rebecca arrives (Genesis 24:63). It is through the narrator’s voice, not his, that we learn she becomes his wife (24:67).
As the parsha closes, there is one more death, one more mute report. Isaac and his brother Ishmael bury their father Abraham together (25:9). No voices are heard, a silence with powerful and long-lasting reverberations.
In our day, we must become more and more attuned to listen for silenced and quieter voices in our communities: those without power or status, those who may not have wealth or influence, or those whose approach to Jewish life, living and ritual may be radical or different. Our communal institutions are slowly learning to hear those voices, and, more importantly, to note when they are not being heard.
Voices of the mute and muted, the disenfranchised and disempowered in our communities, include those cut off from their kin because of their choice of spouse; those not fully welcomed due to their sexual orientation or gender expression; those whose religious quest leads them to embrace Jewishness as an identity rather than to practice Judaism as a religion; those for whom the financial barriers to engage with our institutions and programs are too high.
In Baltimore, Maryland, where I lived and served as a rabbi for 14 years, I was a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis which embraced members serving congregations from the Reconstructionist to the Orthodox. It was a particular delight for me to be able to pick up the phone to arrange for a visit to the Jewish nursing home for our congregation’s children and teens, and to know the voice of the colleague with whom I was speaking. Though from a very different place on the Jewish spectrum, this was a colleague with whom I was in relation, whom I knew from our meetings, from our shared endeavours, and from the kevod harav (honour and respect) we held for each other.
“With kol/all your heart, with kol/all your soul, and with kol/all your might (Deuteronomy 6:3),” says the Shema. The heart, the soul, the strength, the voice of the Jewish community lies in its all-ness. These parshot in Genesis remind us to find blessing in all of our voices.