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Tight Lips Sink Ships: The Mistake of Rachel, Adam, and Lot

By: Rav Uri Cohen

I hold that it must certainly be more dangerous to live in ignorance than to live with knowledge.

– Dr. Philip Handler (1917-1981), testimony to Congress, November 1977

During World War II, American propaganda posters popularized the slogan, “Loose lips sink ships.” The message was that everyone should avoid speaking about where the American ships were, as enemy spies might overhear and use the information to destroy those ships.<1> In the context of war and security concerns, it makes sense to guard information and avoid revealing it except on a need-to-know basis.<2>

In everyday life, though, withholding important information from family members can be a recipe for disaster. Let’s examine three examples in Sefer Bereisheet. In all three, someone didn’t trust their relatives with key information, and this ended up backfiring and hurting the tight-lipped person.

RACHEL AND YAAKOV

One case is well-known. As Yaakov and his family were escaping from Lavan, Rachel secretly stole his household icons, called teraphim (Bereisheet 31:19). She also concealed this information from Yaakov. Consequently, when Lavan caught up with them and accused Yaakov of the theft, Yaakov responded by proclaiming that anyone who stole the teraphim should die (31:32). According to the midrash, the subsequent tragedy of Rachel’s early death (35:19) was a direct result of Yaakov’s curse (Bereisheet Rabbah 74:9). Why didn’t Rachel tell Yaakov what she had done? Perhaps she wanted to protect herself from his anger. Perhaps she wanted to protect him, by keeping him blissfully ignorant of her theft. Either way, she paid for it with her life.<3>

ADAM AND CHAVAH

An earlier story in Sefer Bereisheet that fits this pattern is that of Adam and Chavah, according to contemporary posek Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin. Even though God created the first man and woman to be equal to each other (1:27), the man did not trust his wife. Rav Henkin gives an example of this distrust:

Woman said, “The tree which is in the midst of the garden” (3:3). Why didn’t she call it by name, the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Moreover, the serpent said, “The day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowers of good and evil” (3:5). Since the tree’s name was “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” what did the serpent tell woman that she didn’t already know?

Woman didn’t know the name of the tree. She didn’t know, because man didn’t tell her. He treated her like a child, telling her what to do without sharing with her the information he himself received from G-d. The serpent gained her confidence by revealing that which her husband had withheld from her, and mixed truth with the fateful untruth, “You will not die” (3:4).

Man and woman were created equal, but from the first he related to her as an inferior; by doing so he caused her to stumble and the result was that she caused him to stumble, measure for measure.<4>

In other words, according to Rav Henkin, if only Adam had entrusted Chavah with the same information with which God had entrusted him, their primordial sin could have been delayed, if not completely avoided. This is a second case in which withholding information backfired.

LOT AND HIS DAUGHTERS

A third example appears in Parashat Vayera, according to the Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim, one of the Rishonim). After Sodom was destroyed by God for its extreme evil,<5> Lot and his two daughters lived in a cave (19:30). Since the daughters thought the whole world had been destroyed and they were the only survivors, they decided to get Lot drunk so they could start to repopulate the world (19:31-32). The question, though, is why they didn’t realize that only a small part of the world had been destroyed. The Ran addresses this issue in a little-known interpretation:

Undoubtedly, his daughters asked him if they could go to the home of their Great Uncle [Avraham], since his [generous] character was well-known. But [Lot] was embarrassed [at the prospect of Avraham knowing about the destruction of the city that Lot had chosen], so he told them the whole world had been destroyed. Not that he actually thought so – that could not possibly be. The same way that Avraham could see the destroyed area from his home (19:28), Lot could see the plants and trees still growing in Avraham’s area. Furthermore, the angels had told Lot, “We are destroying this place” (19:13) because of the great outcry [at Sodom’s injustice]; it wasn’t the whole world. Nevertheless, Lot deceived his daughters. He made them live in a cave, perhaps ordering them not to look outside lest they die, as the angel had said [during the actual destruction]. Had they actually walked outside, they would have been able to tell that the world hadn’t been destroyed. They were completely taken in, believing Lot’s words because of their naivete. That explains why the older daughter said to the younger one (19:31), “Our father is old, and there is no man [left] in the world to impregnate us in the normal way.”<6>

The Ran is telling us that the super-embarrassing end of the story – Lot incestuously fathered his own grandchildren – was completely his fault. All he had to do was simply tell his daughters the truth, and he could have resumed a normal life. Instead, he withheld key information from them in order to avoid some embarrassment. Middah keneged middah (measure for measure), the result caused him tremendous embarrassment.

In light of these three stories, we should trust our family members and tell them what they need to know. As long as the context isn’t war, it’s tight lips that sink ships.

NOTES

1. See, for example, https://www.nh.gov/nhsl/ww2/loose.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loose_lips_sink_ships

2. See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Need_to_know

3. For more on this story, especially a discussion of why Rachel stole the teraphim, see my article: “How Rachel Got Her Groove Back” (Vayetze 5769). http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1176

4. Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, “Bereishit,” Nishmat website, 5761. https://web.archive.org/web/20020420165407/http://www.nishmat.net:80/Parsha5759/Berayshit5761.html. A later version is the title essay of his book Equality Lost (Urim, 1999), pp. 18-19.

5. As for why exactly God destroyed Sodom, see my article: “Sodom, Selfishness, and Salt” (Vayera 5777). http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1951

6. Rabbeinu Nissim, Perush al HaTorah (Jerusalem, 1968), p. 256. The translation is mine.

 

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