Thursday, January 5, 2012

Unspoken Words

There are words that need to be said about something painful but because of fear or foolishness they remain unspoken. In other cases, tact and wisdom correctly require silence.

I was amazed by the results of people talking things out, including their emotions using the “community conferencing” model. Two young men who were working together and driving each other crazy rang me one Saturday night at midnight to tell me they had enough and will not show up to run a children’s activity on Monday. We used a process that involved speaking about their experiences, and the impact of the others’ behaviour on them, particularly how it felt. As a result they were able to move on and work side by side, although they gave each other “space”. I have also been impressed with another structured process called transformative listening[1] which enables Palestinians and Israelis from opposing camps (on the religious/secular divide) to really hear each other.

To speak to those with whom we have a conflict[2] is commandment. In order to receive forgiveness for sins between people one must seek forgiveness from the victims[3]. Yet, so much is not talked about in so many situations. In this post, I explore this theme in the lives of Jacob and his sons.

Avoiding Dad and “that topic”
After Jacob reunited with his son Joseph in Egypt after being apart for 22 years when Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers the “elephant in the room” was the events of those lost 22 years. Jacob probably wanted to know more. According to one tradition, Joseph was so determined to avoid this conversation that he limits the time he spends with his beloved father. He is afraid that the truth might come out about the brother’s cruelty and his father will curse them in anger[4]. This would explain why Joseph needs to be told that his father is sick[5], rather than noticing this himself on what we would have otherwise assumed to be his frequent visits.

In the end it seems that Jacob knew what happened anyway. On his death bed he curses the anger of the key culprits in the sale of Joseph, his sons Simon and Levi[6]. Jacob would have realised that they had misled him when they brought him Joseph’s coat covered in blood and implied that a wild animal had devoured Joseph[7].  Yet they never admit their actions to Jacob, nor do they seek his forgiveness for his suffering in missing his son, so their sin is not forgiven[8]. Instead this issue is left to fester and even on Jacob’s death bed it is not resolved but only hinted at. Perhaps it was too hard.

Inadequate Conversation?
Unlike the situation with Jacob where it was possible to avoid talking about the sale completely, the brothers do hold some discussion with Joseph. Perhaps it is resolved too quickly. Joseph lets his brothers off the hook, even telling them “it is not you who have sent me here, but God (who intended for Joseph to be sold into slavery so that he could play his historic role in a) “great salvation[9]” during the famine. The brothers were unable to respond because they were overwhelmed[10] and ashamed[11]. Joseph reassures his brothers, he kisses all his brothers and cries on them, they don’t kiss nor cry. They do manage to talk with him but not about their treatment of him. One view was that they simply did some catching up[12] but whatever they talked about was not of enough significance for the Torah to tell us what it was they said[13].

Unfinished business
It would seem that there was no cost for the brothers being spared the embarrassment of discussing their crime[14] again their own brother, apparently not. When Jacob dies, the brothers are seized by fear that Joseph might hate them and take revenge. They concoct a false instruction[15] from their dead father which they send with a messenger to Joseph, “so shall you say to Joseph, please forgive the sin of your brothers...[16]” Joseph cries when he hears that his brothers suspect him of holding a grudge against them[17] but says nothing about this, instead he continues with the reversal of roles, the victim reassuring the perpetrators. To their credit at least they did one thing right[18], (after first using a messenger) they showed up in person.  Still, they don’t say to Joseph that they are sorry for what they have done, instead they fall to the ground and offer themselves as slaves.

Triggers – also not discussed
What triggered the brothers concern about retribution? A clue is found in the text preceding their renewed fears, “the brothers saw that their father had died”[19]. One view is that as long as Jacob was alive all of Joseph’s brothers would eat at his table but this stopped when their father died[20]. The reason for this was that as long as Jacob was alive, Joseph sat at the head of the table on his fathers instructions, now he was concerned that sitting there would be disrespectful to Reuben who was the first born...[21]. He could not change the order, as this would be considered disrespectful to their father[22], so opting out was the only option. Another interpretation is that on the way back from their fathers funeral in Canaan, Joseph stopped to recite a prayer at the pit that his brothers had thrown him into. Joseph is implicitly criticized for not ensuring that his intentions were clear to his brothers[23]. It appears that the relationship between Joseph and his brothers was a fragile one, bearing the deep scars of the unresolved trauma of selling him into slavery.

Reubens’ unspoken regret
On Jacob’s death bed another unresolved issue surfaces. Jacob harshly reprimands Reuben for his sin with one of Jacob’s wives, Bilhah. The text of the Torah tells us that Reuben slept with Bilhah[24], while according to our sages he merely moved her bed[25]. Whatever actually happened, I have not noticed in any of the sources that this awkward issue was discussed between father and son except in hints on Jacob’s death bed. The only time we find Reuben talk with his father, Reuben offers his sons as a guarantee for the safety of Benjamin[26], Jacob either ignores him[27] or calls him an “idiot first born[28]”. Although never talked to Jacob about his deed, Reuben deeply regretted it action and fasted to atone for it[29]. The deathbed treatment of Judah offers a hint about what might have been if they had talked earlier.   

Roadside harlots and burials
There are two problematic roadside events Jacobs leaves for his last moments. Judah does not know how his father feels about his having twins from a liaison with his daughter-in -law who he thought was a prostitute[30]. When Judah hears his fathers harsh words to three of his brothers “he trembles backward waiting for his rebuke, instead his father is reassuring you are not like the others[31]”. One reason given for Judah’s positive treatment is his having admitted his sin[32].

Then there is Rachel’s burial on the side of the road in Bethlehem[33]. Jacob knew that Joseph is holding a decades old grudge[34] about his mother’s lowly burial outside the family plot in Hebron. When Jacob asks Joseph to attend to his own burial in the family plot[35], Joseph asks him about this as this distressed him greatly. Jacob began to answer him…and I when I came from Padan[36], by your life just as you wanted that your mother should be buried (there) so did I want it… Joseph asks if perhaps it was the rainy season, no his father says. …It was by God’s command that she was buried there as one day her children will walk on that road and they will hug her tomb and she will stand up and pray for them[37].  One thing I learned from a leader in the field of preserving dignity in conflict, mediation expert and of ‘Conscious Connectivity: Creating Dignity in Conversation[38]’ Michelle Brenner, is that it is important to share one’s own struggle. Jacob gets this right, and also talks of Rachel’s death being the most difficult for him, even more than all his other troubles[39]. I think is sad that they both had this between them for some many years, but at least it is resolved.  

Managing relationships is more an art than a science. The ancients probably had some valuable insights into talk and silence. We are taught that “with many words, there will be no lack of sin[40], and there is “nothing better than silence”[41].  On the other hand, there is a strong case to be made within our tradition for fuller conversations about issues that are easier to avoid. We are taught about admitting guilt, admonition, and given hints about struggle as well as tact. We should also look outside our tradition[42] for practical insights into preserving dignity in situations of conflict. Our sages have identified four categories for speech[43], none of them explicitly includes structured conversation in the Community Conferencing or Transformative Listening models. Yet we are called to utilise speech for upright conduct and the development of character, to combine the wisdom of both.

[1]     Shalif, Y, Creating Care-Full Listening and Conversations between Members of Conflicting Groups in Israel: Narrative Means to Transformative Listening,
[2]     Leviticus 19:17
[3]    Mimonedes, Yad, Laws of repentance 2:9
[4]    Pesikta Rabbati, also cited in Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot
[5]    Genesis 48:1
[6]    Genesis 49:6, “with their will they uprooted an ox”, Midrash Hagadol, also Rashi explain that the ox refers to Joseph, also see Midrash Tanchuma Yashan on Genesis 37:19 where he identified Simon and Levi as playing a key role in the sale of Joseph
[7]    Genesis 36:33
[8]    In the Yom Kippur Musaf prayer, we read the account of the brutal murder of 10 sages who are punished in the place of Jacob’s 10 sons
[9]    Genesis 45:5, 7, 8
[10]  Genesis 45:3
[11]  Rashi
[12]  Radak writes that they asked him about what happened with him since the day they separated and how he ascended to greatness
[13]  The major Midrashim and Rashi don’t bother with the contents of this conversation, interestingly, Bchor Shor writes that the conversation was about annulling the oath of secrecy about the sale of Joseph
[14]  Although they don’t talk to Joseph about it directly, they have at least verbalised their regret earlier saying to each other “But we are guilty about our brother, when we saw the distress of his soul, when he pleaded with us and we did not listen… “ (Genesis 42:21).
[15]  Talmud Yavamot 65b
[16]  Genesis 50:17
[17]  Beresheet Rabba
[18]  Lekach Tov
[19]  Genesis 50:15
[20]  Beresheet Rabba 100:8, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[21]  Beresheet Rabba ibid, Tzor Hamor
[22]  Etz Yosef commentary on Beresheet Rabba
[23]  Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Nehama Liebowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. Joseph is cited as an example of the need to do right not just by God, but also for people to know one has done right
[24]  Genesis 35:22
[25]  Talmud Shabbat 55a
[26]  Genesis 42:37
[27]  Avot Drabbi Natan, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 1590
[28]  Beresheet Rabba 91
[29]  Beresheet Rabba 84
[30]     Genesis 38:6-30
[31]    Beresheet Rabba cited in Rashi
[32]    Midrash Tanchuma, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[33]     Genesis 35:19
[34]     Rashi
[35]     Genesis 47:30
[36]     Genesis 48:7
[37]     Pesikta Rabbati 3
[39]     Ruth Rabba 2:7
[40]    Proverbs 10:19
[41]  Pirkey Avot 1:17
[42]    Eicha Rabba 2:13, if someone says there is wisdom among the nations you should believe him
[43]     Both cited in Beit Habechira on Pirkey Avot 1:17, Mivchar Hapeninim, gate of silence 12, lists 4 types of words,
a) that we can anticipate benefits and fear of their consequences, eg. speaking against one person to help another.
b) that we anticipate damage but no benefit at all, such as profanity and tale bearing.
c) that we can anticipate neither damage nor benefits, such as telling what happened, news in the time of war.
d) that we can anticipate only benefit and no damage at all eg. re: wisdom and about good character. He advocates that we limit speech to the fourth category. 


  1. Safiyya comment on FBJanuary 7, 2012 at 10:57 PM

    When you speak of Rachel's tomb and it being there where it is because someday her children "will walk on that road and they will hug her tomb and she will stand up and pray for them."

    Rabbi, is it the Jewish belief that the dead can intercede for the living from their graves?

    And would you explain a short bit the source of that?

  2. Safiyyah comment 2 on FBJanuary 7, 2012 at 10:59 PM

    From the ACT-UP campaign (against HIV) years ago:

    silencio = muerte

    (silence = death)

  3. thanks Safiyyah for the question.
    The belief in the dead interceding is well established in Jewish sources but I am not sure how different strands of orthodoxy think about it in practice.
    The source for it in relation to Rachel is in the Midrash which orthodox Jews would have a lot of respect for. Not quite the authority of the Talmud or the Chumash (5 books of the Torah) but highly respected.