For some reason keeping comments to myself doesn’t come naturally to me. Do I have a filter? Yes. Do I use it as often as I should? That depends on who you ask. Throughout my life I’ve had to work hard to say the right thing at the right time, or at least keep the snarky and inappropriate thoughts silent. My tone of voice and sometimes biting remarks were a source of great strife as I made my way through my teenage years and young adulthood. Even now I constantly check myself to see if what I’m about to say out loud will be harmful to others, or if there’s a better or nicer way I could say it, or if it really needs to be said at all. I have to use extreme care and caution in picking my words so that the conversation remains productive and not destructive. The old saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” is a rule with which I struggle daily.
I know I’m not alone in my cautious selecting of words and tone. In fact, throughout the Torah we receive warnings of the problems that arise when we either don’t choose our words carefully or use our words to destroy. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, we learn this lesson as well. Here’s the recap: Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.
When Sarah learns of her pregnancy, her first reaction is to laugh, responding, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” She’s telling God there’s no way she can be pregnant because her husband is so old. However, when God recounts the experience to Abraham, God changes her reaction and asks, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” Remember, Sarah called Abraham old, not herself, but God changes the harshness of Sarah’s reaction to cushion the blow for Abraham.
This verse is used as the proof text in the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot, where we learn that one is not obligated to tell the whole truth if it will hurt someone’s feelings. Part of being human and engaging in human relationships is the ability to discern what is necessary to share and what might be best “softened” for others. It’s not that we have a free pass to lie, but we do have the obligation to think of other people first and make sure our words and actions come from a place of respect.