By: Dan Leshem, PhD
Director, Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)
In French, the word entretien is one way of referring to a conversation. It is a compound noun made up of the two words, tien which means to hold and entre which means between. Therefore, conversation means something that is held between two people. This reminds me of a game we used to play in grade school where two people would hold a stick with their bellies and try walking around. What you quickly realize is that your movements need to match: every time I take a small step forward, my partner needs to take a small one back, and in this way, we keep the stick from falling. This game teaches us how to be in a relationship with each other—attentive, mirroring, and responding.
This week’s parsha, Vayeshev, provides us with profound opportunities to think through the repercussions of the absence of this type of conversation, which can be manifested through a posture of silence, isolation, and disconnection. Joseph, in his youth and immaturity, alienates his brothers by sharing his dreams that speak of his family, people, and even the sun and the stars bowing down to him. He compounds this by complaining about his brothers to his father causing further tension and anger. His multicolored robe, the most visible symbol of his father’s preference for Joseph seems to be a bridge too far for his brothers, who can no longer contain their jealousy. After considering killing him, they elect to sell him into slavery and to let their father believe Joseph has been killed by wild beasts.
Instead of speaking to Joseph and sharing their frustration and hurt, the brothers speak to each other in his absence. Rather than trying to help Joseph understand their pain, they assume the worst intentions and so pursue an extreme option—shutting him up for good, or so they think. In order not to “hate your brother in your heart,” as Leviticus instructs, Maimonides teaches that “when a person sins against another, the injured party should not hate the offender and keep silent…[rather] 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?” In other words, silence in the face of an injustice leads to hate and ultimately violence, while in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “conversation is a form of conflict resolution.”
In Hebrew, the word for conversation is lasuaḥ. In the Hebrew bible, this term is first used to describe Isaac’s behavior as he goes walking in a field towards dusk just as his future wife Rebekah is approaching him for the first time. “‘And Isaac went out to converse [lasuaḥ] in the field toward evening’ (Genesis 24:63), and conversation means nothing other than prayer.” If conversation is prayer, than engaging with our brother, our neighbor, our friend, or our enemy is engaging in a holy practice. Conversation, which can establish a connection that did not exist before, truly creates something out of nothing, connection out of disconnection, love out of hate, and song out of silence. This Hanukkah, as we kindle the lights and see the faces of our family and friends in the twinkling lights of the menorah think about creating something out of nothing, and replace a feeling of distance with a reality of closeness and love.
Shabbat Shalom, Colorado.
Please email Dan Leshem at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments or questions.