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Conversation Is The Key To Understanding


From Parshat Vayeishev to the end of Sefer Bereishit, we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. From the very beginning we are plunged into a drama of sibling rivalry that seems destined to end in tragedy. All the elements are there. There is favoritism. Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons. The Torah says this was because “he had been born to him in his old age.” But we also know that it was because Joseph was the son, the first son, of his beloved Rachel who had been infertile for many years.

Jacob gave this favoritism a visible symbol, the richly ornamented robe or coat of many colors that he had made for him. The sight of this acted as a constant provocation to the brothers. In addition there were the bad reports Joseph brought to his father about his half-brothers, the children of the handmaids. And by the fourth verse of the parshah, we read the following: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him, velo yachlu dabro l’shalom” (Genesis 37:4).

What is the meaning of this last phrase? Here are some of the standard translations: they could not speak a kind word to him; they could not speak peacefully to him; and they could not speak to him on friendly terms.

Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, however, recognized that the Hebrew construction is strange. Literally it means, “they could not speak him to peace.” What might this mean? Rabbi Eybeschutz refers us to the command in Vayikra 19:17: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely reprimand your neighbor and not bear sin because of him.”

This is how Maimonides interprets this command as it relates to interpersonal relations:

When a person sins against another, the injured party should not hate the offender and keep silent … it is his duty to inform the offender and say to him, “why did you do this to me? Why did you sin against me in this matter?” … If the offender repents and pleads for forgiveness, he should be forgiven (Hilchot De’ot 6:6).

Rabbi Eybeschutz’s point is simple. Had the brothers been able to speak to Joseph they might have told him of their anger at his talebearing, and of their distress at seeing the many-colored coat. They might have spoken frankly about their sense of humiliation at the way their father favored Rachel over their mother Leah, a favoritism that was now being carried through into a second generation. Joseph might have come to understand their feelings. It might have made him more modest or at least more thoughtful. But lo yachlu dabro l’shalom. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to speak. As Nachmanides writes regarding the commandment of “You shall not hate your brother in your heart”: “Those who hate tend to hide their hate in their heart.”

We have here an instance of one of the Torah’s great insights: conversation is a form of conflict resolution, whereas the breakdown of speech is often a prelude to violent revenge.

The classic case is that of Absalom and Amnon, two half brothers who were sons of king David. In a shocking episode, Amnon rapes Absolom’s sister Tamar:

Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

When King David heard all this, he was furious. And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar (II Samuel 13:19-22).

Absalom maintained his silence for two years. Then he invited all of David’s sons for a feast at the time of sheep shearing, and ordered his servants to wait until Amnon was drunk, and then kill him – which they did. Hate grows in silence. It did with Absalom. It did with Joseph’s brothers. Before the chapter ends, we see them plot to kill Joseph, throw him into a pit, and then sell him into slavery. It is a terrible story, and led directly to the Israelites’ exile and slavery in Egypt.

The Talmud (Berachot 26a) uses the phrase, “Ein sichah ela tefillah,” which literally means, “Conversation is a form of prayer,” because in opening ourselves up to the human other, we prepare ourselves for the act of opening ourselves up with the Divine Other, which is what prayer is: a conversation with G-d.

Conversation does not, in and of itself, resolve conflict. Two people who are open with one another may still have clashing desires or competing claims. They may simply not like one another. There is no law of predetermined harmony in the human domain. But conversation means that we recognize one another’s humanity. At its best it allows us to engage in role reversal, seeing the world from the other’s point of view. Think of how many real and intractable conflicts, whether in the personal or political domain, might be transformed if we could do that.

In the end Joseph and his brothers had to live through real trauma before they were able to recognize one another’s humanity, and much of the rest of their story – the longest single narrative in the Torah – is about just that.

Judaism is about the G-d who cannot be seen, who can only be heard; about the G-d who created the universe with words and whose first act of kindness to the first human being was to teach him how to use words. Jews, even highly secular Jews, have often been preoccupied with language. Wittgenstein understood that philosophy is about language. Levi Strauss saw cultures as forms of language. Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker pioneered study of the language instinct. George Steiner has written about translation and the limits of language.

The Sages were eloquent in speaking about the dangers of lashon hara, the power of language to fracture relationships and destroy trust and goodwill. But there is evil silence as well as evil speech. It is no accident that at the very beginning of the most fateful tale of sibling rivalry in Bereishit, the role – specifically the failure – of language is alluded to, in a way missed by virtually all translations. Joseph’s brothers might have “spoken him to peace” had they been open, candid and willing to communicate. Speech broke down at the very point where it was needed most.

Words create; words reveal; words command; words redeem. Judaism is a religion of holy words. For words are the narrow bridge across the abyss between soul and soul, between two human beings, and between humanity and G-d. Language is the redemption of solitude, and the mender of broken relationships. However painful it is to speak about our hurt, it is more dangerous not to do so. Joseph and his brothers might have been reconciled early on in their lives, and thus spared themselves, their father, and their descendants, much grief. Revealing pain is the first step to healing pain. Speech is a path to peace.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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