The Sound of Silence by Rabbi Jeremy Donath


In every language, there is no shortage of ways to inflict pain. In fact, all dialects have their own unique words to express feelings of contempt. Yet, there is one other type of insult that doesn’t involve any noise at all. It is a slur that can't be looked up in any dictionary, and its etymology cannot be dissected, however, if used correctly, its effects can be just as sharp and piercing. It is the sound of silence.

In Parashat VaYeishev, we were first introduced to the quarrels of the Shevatim with their brother Yosef. After being told that Ya’akov loved Yosef more than his other sons because he was a “Ben Zekunim,” “a son of his old age” (BeReishit 37:3), the Pesukim tell us, “VaYisne’u Oto VeLo Yachelu Dabro LeShalom,” “And they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully” (BeReishit 37:4). Ibn Ezra (ad loc. s.v. LeShalom) suggests that although the brothers did not have anything nice to say to Yosef, they did not revert to insults; instead, they chose to not speak to him at all.

Rav Yonatan Eybeshitz suggests that a great lesson about strained relationships can be learned from these brothers. In Parashat Kedoshim, we are told, “Lo Tisna Et Achicha BiLeVavecha Hochei’ach Tochi’ach Et Amitecha,” “Do not hate your brother in your heart; rather rebuke him for his ways” (VaYikra 19:17). What remedy is the Torah recommending by encouraging rebuke? Rav Eybeshitz explains that the Torah is teaching us an important lesson in conflict resolution: The best way to prevent hatred from escalating is to confront the elephant in the room and have difficult and open conversations. In silence, conflicts do not resolve themselves—that is why the Torah commands us to rebuke a person with whom one is experiencing enmity. By at least opening up the lines of communication, albeit in a respectful and carefully-worded way, there is a chance for reconciliation. Unfortunately, it was this failure of the brothers to speak with Yosef about their differences that led to the ensuing sale of Yosef and ultimately, the Galut.

Is there any proof in the Torah that “silence” played such a prominent role in the relationship between the brothers and Yosef? Not only does silence have a prominent role in VaYeishev; silence also has a prominent role in Yosef and his brothers’ relationship in Parashat Vayigash, when Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers. When revealing himself to his brother, “VaYomer Yosef El Echav Ani Yosef HaOd Avi Chay VeLo Yachelu Echav LaAnot Oto Ki Nivhalu MiPanav,” “And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef, is my father still alive?’ And the brothers were not able to respond…they were speechless” (BeReishit 45:3). The initial shock of the brothers is understandable given the circumstances and their uncertainty regarding Yosef’s feelings towards them; yet, it is actually the extent of their silence that is most peculiar.

After Yosef’s lengthy monologue with his brothers in which he tries to put their worries to rest, the brothers continue to remain silent. It is only after Yosef tries a different means of communication, when he cries and kisses each of the brothers, that the Torah relates, “VeAcharei Chein Dibru Echav Ito,” “And afterwards his brothers spoke with him” (BeReishit 45:15). Perhaps the reference to the broken silence is not a tangential point. Instead, the verse is telling us that the resolution to the entire conflict is not complete until the brothers are able to speak to Yosef again, and the broken lines of communication are mended.

Unfortunately, there are times in all of our lives when we experience conflict, whether it be in our workplace, our communities, or even in our own homes. It is crucial that we learn the lesson of the brothers, that when dealing with discord, silence is not an option. It is true that opening the lines of communication with an estranged loved one is not an easy task; yet, the story of Yosef and his brothers reminds us that being brave enough to have those uncomfortable conversations can bring the ultimate Ge’ulah and help put an end to the deafening sounds of silence. 

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