Listen to What You Hear by Rabbi Jeremy Donath


Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, a noted author, historian, and Professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, recently published a book entitled The Eichmann Trial. The book depicts how “the trial’s impact extends far beyond Adolf Eichmann and his nefarious deeds” (p. 188). The Eichmann trial, which actually ended with a death sentencing on December 15, 1961, is pointed to as the turning point for the world’s ability to finally openly discuss what happened during the Holocaust. As Israeli historian Tom Segev asserts, “In Israel, until the trial, there was a depth of silence about the Holocaust.” But while people claim that the trial unlocked the doors of speechlessness, the historical facts seem to suggest otherwise. In 1950, the Knesset passed the law for prosecuting Nazis and their collaborators. In 1956, roughly 40,000 Israelis participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, and throughout the decade, spirited legislative discussions about establishing Yom HaSho’ah took place. If all of these events occurred prior to the Eichmann trial, then what happened in 1961 that suggests the trial was a major turning point toward ending “the silence?”

Parashat VaYeishev contains the infamous story of the sale of Yosef, one of the most memorable stories in the Torah. In Perek 37, we read about the brothers’ initial plan to kill Yosef and throw him into a pit. Yet, Reuven, the oldest of the brothers, proposes something else. Reuven suggests that in place of actually killing Yosef with their hands, the brothers should simply put Yosef into a pit to die on his own. It would seem from the description of Reuven’s plea that his main objective is to stop the brothers from cold-blooded murder. He has no problem with Yosef dying, but doesn’t want the blood to be on his brothers’ hands. Throwing him into an empty pit to die is a more elegant form of bloodshed.

In contrast, roughly 22 years later, when the brothers stand before Joseph’s court accused of spying and threatened with imprisonment, Reuven remarks "HaLo Amarti Aleichem Leimor Al Techet’u VaYeled VeLo Shematem VeGam Damo Hinei Nidrash," "Didn’t I tell you [years ago] not to sin against the child, but you didn't listen to me. Here comes the reckoning for his blood” (BeReishit 42:22). As we see, Reuven here tells a different story! At the pit, he speaks coldly about leaving Yosef out to die, instead of actively killing him. Now in Yosef’s palace, he speaks of having pleaded with the brothers “not to sin against the child.” He remembers a compassionate cry to not sin at all, an argument completely absent from the earlier account. How can we make sense of this glaring omission?

Additionally, in the Pasuk immediately preceding Reuven’s later remarks, the brothers reflect on that fateful day when Yosef was thrown into the pit. Their reaction to their precarious situation in
 Yosef’s grasps is described in detail by the Pasuk. "VaYomeru Ish El Achiv Aval Asheimim Anachnu Al Achinu Asher Ra'inu Tzarat Nafsho BeHitchaneno Eileinu VeLo Shamanu," "And they said one to another, 'We are guilty with regard to our brother in that we saw the distress of his soul when he besought us and we would not hear'" (BeReishit 42:21). The brothers acknowledge to each other that their present situation is in direct response to their not having heard the cries of their brother Yosef and for not having listened to his anguish. This is a fascinating statement, because if we look through Parashat VaYeishev’s description of Yosef being thrown into the pit, it doesn’t mention anything about Yosef protesting! In VaYeishev, we don’t hear his cries and we don’t read about his audible anguish! Ramban (ad loc. s.v. Asher Ra'inu etc.) asks, why only in Egypt, so many years after the fact, are we informed about Yosef’s prior emotional response? Ramban offers a few suggestions, including one which suggests that Yosef’s emotional outburst at the kidnapping is obvious and doesn’t need to be explicitly stated. And while Ramban provides two other answers, we will focus on an idea in Dr. Avivah Zornberg’s book, The Murmuring Deep.

Starting with the two tales of what Reuven says that fateful day, Dr. Zornberg suggests that, in fact, both versions of the story are true. “The Torah’s initial account of Reuven’s impersonal plea actually omits an earlier plea in which Reuven spoke more passionately and compassionately” (pp. 300-301). Initially, Reuven does actually make a strong appeal for Yosef’s complete salvation. However, it is an appeal that doesn’t appear in the text until the brother’s imprisonment in Yosef’s palace many years later. Why? It is only during the later appeal when the brothers first associate their guilt for their treatment of Yosef with their current dire predicament that the brothers are actually able to “hear it.” After 22 years, when finally facing the guilt of what they had done, the brothers and Reuven are finally ready to hear the impassioned plea of Reuven that they had blocked out so long ago.

That is also why the Torah in Parashat VaYeishev doesn’t initially mention anything about Yosef’s cries from the pit. At that point, when they are throwing him in, no one is listening. During the initial event, the brothers are so cold and callous to the screams of their brother that they really don’t hear him. Only in MiKeitz, when the brothers face the guilt of their past and recognize the true tragedy of what they had done, are they able to register the crying that actually did occur so long ago.

Dr. Zornberg explains that “for the power of language to work, a listening Other is required”(p. 306). If no one is listening, it is as if nothing was said. That’s why initially we don’t have a passionate speech from Reuven and we hear nothing of Yosef’s anguish. What good is a speech or an emotional plea if nobody is listening!? Only later, when the brothers mature and wake up to understand the full extent of their actions, are they ready to hear the screams of the past.  

In her book, Dr. Lipstadt explains the seismic significance of the Eichmann trial. During the immediate years after the war, the Holocaust was discussed, the Holocaust was commemorated, and the Holocaust was remembered. But it wasn’t until the Eichmann trial in 1961 that the whole world began to listen. Until the trial, the Holocaust had never received such consistent attention, making the front pages headlines daily, across the globe. During the Eichmann trial, the world for the first time had a “face of evil” to look at, in the specially crafted bullet-proof box built in the court. For the first time, the world watched as 100 prosecution eye-witnesses, including 90 concentration-camp survivors, came to the stand. The lengthy four-month trial, which personalized the Holocaust by giving it a face, enraptured the world. For the first time, the world listened. Dr. Lipstadt writes the following conclusion to her book: “In short, as a result of the trial, the story of the Holocaust, though it had previously been told, discussed, and commemorated, was heard anew, in a profoundly different way, and not just in Israel, but in many parts of the Jewish and non-Jewish world. The telling may not have been entirely new, but the hearing was!” (The Eichmann Trial p. 193). In all aspects of life, it is not enough for our stories simply to be told – they must be heard as well.

The Dreamer by Simcha Lev Abrahams

Ya’akov – A Liar? by Yehuda Feman