From Vayeshev to the end of the book of 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 favouritism. 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 it was because Joseph was the son, the first son, of his beloved Rachel who had been infertile for many years.
Jacob gave this favouritism a visible symbol, the richly ornamented robe or coat of many colours 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 parsha we read the following:
When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him, velo yachlu dabro le-shalom. (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.
They could not speak to him on friendly terms.
Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, however, recognised 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 neighbour 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 Deot 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-coloured coat. They might have spoken frankly about their sense of humiliation at the way their father favoured Rachel over their mother Leah, a favouritism 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 le-shalom. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to speak. As Nachmanides writes, on the command: 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, that 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 Absolom 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. (2 Samuel 13:19-22)
Absalom maintained his silence for two years. Then he invited all of David’s sons for a feast at the timer 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, then throw him in to 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 (Berakhot 26b) 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 God.
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 recognise 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 recognise 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 God who cannot be seen, who can only be heard; about the God 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, “evil speech,” 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 God. 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.