Vayerah: Quiet Strength

The election season is finally over. Whether we are disappointed with the results or gladdened by them, we unanimously breathe a sigh of relief that the campaign has concluded. We are especially appreciative of the fact that we no longer have to hear grandiose promises expressed by each candidate, promises that we all know will not be kept.

The tendency which many of us have, even those of us who are not candidates for political office, to speak of our intentions in exaggerated terms, runs counter to a principal value of our religion. I speak of a value which is exemplified by Abraham in this week's Torah portion, Parshas Vayerah (Genesis 18:1-22:24).

You remember the story. Abraham is "sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him… Bowing to the ground, he said, 'My lords, if it pleases you… bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…" The three men consented to Abraham's offer.

But does Abraham merely fetch them a morsel of bread? No. He hastens into the tent to Sarah and instructs her to bring three seahs of choice flour and to bake cakes. Then he has the servant boy prepare a tender and choice calf, and added curds and milk to the menu. The biblical passage concludes with these words: "He set these before them, and waited on them under the tree as they ate."

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) notes the contrast between Abraham's initial modest offer of a simple morsel of bread with the grand feast that he ultimately delivered. The Talmud comments, "This is the way of the righteous. Omrim me'at ve'osim harbeh. They say little, but do much."

In this passage, the rabbis describe the value of "saying little, but doing much" as a value practiced by the righteous, but not by every man. It is only "the way of the righteous."

Yet we find another passage in rabbinic literature which urges all of us to "say little and do much". I refer to the statement of Shammai in the very first chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. There Shammai says: "Make your Torah study a fixed habit. Say little and do much; and greet everyone cheerfully."

Although it is Shammai's arch opponent, Hillel, who is known for his humane approach to interpersonal relationships, apparently Shammai too was humane and sensitive to the needs of others. Although he begins his words of counsel by emphasizing the importance of regular Torah study, he fully recognizes the need say little, do much, and act cheerfully. Note too that he does not restrict his advice to the righteous. Quite the contrary. The words of Pirkei Avot apply to us all. They are to be heeded even by those of us who are not numbered among the righteous. We are all to say little and do much.

What precisely did the rabbis mean when they said, "Say a little, but do much"? I think that many are confused by similar phrases found in a variety of secular contexts. For example, there is the phrase "the strong, silent type." This phrase conjures up the old cinema images of Gary Cooper and John Wayne. These actors came to typify "macho" men who did not waste their time with idle chatter, but who were "doers". These were men who acted decisively and often violently but "got things done". This is surely not what the rabbis had in mind when they advocated "speaking little, but doing much".

Another similar adage that comes to mind is "Speak softly, but carry a big stick." These words are associated with the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed in quiet diplomacy backed up by the threat of military might. It is quite possible that the rabbis would have seen the advantages of such a foreign policy, but "carrying a big stick" was certainly not their moral message.

To accurately understand what the rabbis were trying to convey. I find it useful to turn to the words of my favorite commentary on Pirkei Avot, the one written by Rabbenu Yonah, Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, the 13th century ethicist who lived in Catalonia, Spain. Here is his comment upon Shammai's Emor me'at ve'aseh harbeh:

"When you promise your fellow to do something for him, promise him but a little, but then do as much as you can for him. This is the way of ethics, and this is the way of piety." Ethics demand that one keep his promises It is proper to promise only that which one can confidently guarantee to deliver. Piety demands that one act with great humility and promise only small things, to be followed if possible with pious generosity going far beyond the initial commitment."

Rabbenu Yonah then continues with another aspect of "Say little, but do much." He calls it the quality of elyonut, of superiority. If I understand him correctly, Rabbenu Yonah alludes to the superior power that is gained by "saying little and doing much." It is the power that is possessed by the modest person who acts bravely and courageously.

I came across an excellent example of this superior power when I recently read Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. For me, the word "introvert" is just a modern way of describing the person who "says little but does much."

In the opening pages of her book, Cain tells the story of Rosa Parks, the African American woman who, during the days when buses were still segregated in the deep South of the United States, defied the bus driver who ordered her to yield her seat to a white person. She simply said, "No." With that one word, she was able to galvanize her community to come to her support, and she ultimately achieved equality for her people.

Obituaries described her as "timid and shy, but with the courage of a lion." The title of her autobiography is "Quiet Strength.” It was her quiet nature that gave her the superior power which culminated in great strength. I think that this is what Rabbenu Yonah meant when he referred to the superior effectiveness, the "doing much," which comes as a consequence of “saying little.".

In our day and age, when people make promises with braggadocio and fanfare but fail to keep those promises, the advice of our rabbis is especially relevant. When alluring words are not followed by effective and beneficial actions, the advice of our rabbis is not only relevant, but urgent.

We all must work toward establishing a society that is guided by the words of Shammai and the actions of Abraham. We must learn to promise only a "morsel of bread" but serve "cakes and calves" and a feast fit for kings.

Emor me'at v'aseh harbeh. "Say a little, but do a lot."