The Joseph story, told in this week’s parashah, begins with favoritism and hate. From the very start, the Torah tells us that Jacob favored Joseph over all his children. Naturally, the brothers sensed this.
“When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak to him l’shalom” (Genesis 37:4). What a chilling and all-too-familiar image of intractable family conflict.
The last phrase in the verse (velo yachlu dabro l’shalom) is unusual and ambiguous, giving rise to wonderful reflection in the classical commentaries. Rashi (1040-1105) suggests that the brothers chose silence over the pretense of hypocritical speech. Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) says that they could not speak a word to Joseph, even on non-conflictual matters. (Perhaps they could not even exchange greetings of “shalom.”) Radak (1160-1235) imagines that the brothers could argue with Joseph, but not speak peaceably with him.
These commentaries describe three painful forms of communication breakdown in troubled relationships. We might call Rashi’s view warm silence — avoidance of speech in the interest of minimizing further damage. Ibn Ezra describes white-hot silence, familiar to many of us in times of intense anger. Radak portrays the breakdown of civil conversation, a state of perpetual argument.
These varieties of communication crisis are familiar to many of us in troubled relationships with family (all too often siblings), friends and community members.
Rashi’s comment invites us to ask: Does avoiding important issues actually help heal relationships? Ibn Ezra’s reminds us of the most broken of relationships, when silence covers over uncontrollable rage. Radak describes a collapse of connected relationship, leaving unceasing disputes and quarrels.
Whichever interpretation we choose, the message of our text is clear: When caring speech breaks down, dire consequences may ensue.
What are we to do in those relationships that evoke such powerful emotions of anger, hurt and betrayal that we feel that we must not or cannot speak without exploding? Jewish tradition has a strong bias in favor of engaged communication, even when it is extremely difficult, as the only possible way to resolution.
Reconciliation requires commitment to deep listening.
On our same verse, Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764), writes that the problem in our story was that the brothers failed to sit down and explore their differences together. Referencing the mitzvah of “rebuke,” or challenging conversation (Leviticus 18:17), he emphasizes that the brothers should have talked about their grievances with one another. Only in this way could there have been a chance to reach reconciliation.
“The problem with every conflict,” he writes, “is when there is no shared language, no listening ear, and no expression of criticism or complaint.”
In very few words, Eybeschutz diagnoses the problem of entrenched conflict and describes the path to restoring a relationship. In such painfully broken relationships, it is essential to find “shared language,” if only to recognize the lenses through which the other party views the problem.
Reconciliation requires commitment to deep listening, both to the other’s experience and to one’s own pain, for such listening may seem unbearably difficult. And, he believes, the only chance for transforming a relationship is when people explore their grievances with honest, courageous and connected communication.
In the case of Joseph and his brothers, no one — neither the brothers nor their parents — had the wisdom to facilitate such healing conversation. But for the twists and turns of the story (and God’s intention), this breakdown in relationship would have led to Joseph’s death and his father’s heartbreak. We ordinary people cannot count on divine intervention to prevent dire consequences of relationship breakdown, but we may need to reach for the divine within us for strength and wisdom to face these difficult conversations.
Still, what are we to do in our own lives when we are not ready to engage the person directly?
The reference to peace in our verse suggests a practice that is possible even when communication seems impossible. Try wishing for their well-being, as you would for any human being. It doesn’t matter if your feelings are more complicated than this. What does matter is reaching out with “shalom.”
Make it a daily practice in the silence of your own home to send a blessing of peace to yourself and to the other — a wish that your basic needs be fulfilled. Such practices are powerful, and may open pathways to peace.