Silence is the last word one would use to characterize the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers. Indeed, parashat Vayigash opens with Yehudah’s heartfelt and impassioned plea to Yosef to free Binyamin. These words are so powerful in conveying Yehudah’s unflinching loyalty to Binyamin and the anguish of his father Yaakov that Yosef can no longer contain himself; his emotions burst forth, and he reveals himself to his brothers. And if Yehudah’s words can stir powerful, positive emotions, Yosef’s words have the power to calm turbulent, potentially destructive ones: “Now, do not be anguished, and do not reproach yourselves that you have sold me here, for it is to be a source of life that God has sent me ahead of you” (Breishit, 45:4).
Even as the story reaches its dénouement there is much talking: talk of how to report back to Yaakov about what has happened; talk about how the land of Egypt is open to Yaakov and his family, and about how they should arrange their emigration from Canaan; talking to Yaakov about what has happened and his exclamation of wonderment at the news of Yosef; God’s talking to Yaakov before he leaves Canaan; Yosef’s talking to his brothers to prepare them for their meeting with Pharaoh; Pharaoh’s talking to the brothers; Pharaoh’s talking to Yaakov; and finally, Yaakov’s blessing of Pharaoh. There is indeed much talking in this parasha, but in the midst of all the talking and the beehive of activity that surrounds it, there is a profound, poignant moment of silence:
And Yisrael said to Yosef, “I can now die, after that I have seen your face, that you are still alive.” And Yosef said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and report to Pharaoh, and I will tell him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household from the Land of Canaan have come to me'” (46:30-31).
What just happened here? Yaakov and Yosef meet after a twenty-two year separation, Yaakov having believed Yosef to be dead but perhaps not so sure, perhaps suspecting that the brothers had something to do with the whole thing. And Yosef wondering who knows what… Perhaps he was thinking that his father didn’t care that he was gone. Perhaps he suspected that his father was unconcerned with the dangers that had befallen him. Or perhaps he even believed that his father had conspired by sending him to his brothers when they were shepherding, knowing how much they hated him. But even if these troubling thoughts were not kept at bay, after hearing Yehudah’s passionate speech Yosef certainly knew how bereaved his father felt and the serious toll his absence had taken on Yaakov.
And now, after twenty-two long years they finally reconcile, and Yaakov lets forth an exclamation of joy, joy tinged with his past suffering but joy nevertheless. And then what? Silence. Yosef does not respond: he does not say one word to his father. More exactly, there is not silence, but Yosef talks to all the wrong people: to his brothers and to his father’s household but not to his father. And the talk is about all the wrong things: “Oh, let’s go tell Pharaoh that you are here.” The abrupt transition in these two verses is the conversational equivalent of, “Great to see you, Dad. Oh, look at the time. Gotta go.” All the talking and all the business hold a profound silence. No one is talking about what needs to be discussed: not just, “I missed you so much. I can’t believe we are together again,” but also, “What really happened that day, twenty-two years ago?” “Why did you send me to check on my brothers, knowing how much they hated me?” What is being said instead is, “No, we’ll talk about that later. There is too much to do now, too much other talking that needs to take place.”
Simon and Garfunkel said it best:
People talking without speaking…
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.”
The impassioned, heart-wrenching communication at the beginning of the parasha is replaced by a lot of pragmatic, businesslike talking at the end. The unspoken words continue to hover in the background. The silence grows like a cancer, eating away at Yosef and Yaakov from the inside, continuing to fester, preventing them from bringing these difficult issues to the surface so that they can be dealt with and resolved.
And the silence also grows like a wall to divide Yaakov and Yosef. It prevents them from ever truly connecting again on a deep, personal level. Yosef is too busy to talk to his father when he arrives and remains so through the rest of his life. When Yaakov finally speaks to Yosef again, it is at the end of Yaakov’s life, on his deathbed, and it is for the very practical purpose of arranging for his own burial. During the exchange we find out that they have communicated so little that Yaakov does not even know his own grandchildren. He knows about them, but he does not recognize them: “And Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef, and he said, ‘Who are these?’ And Yosef said to his father, ‘They are my sons'” (48:8-9). Because Yaakov and Yosef are not able to talk about the things that need to be said, they wind up talking about very little, or at least very little that really matters.
There is, finally, one moment when the silence is broken. But by then it is too late. For when Yaakov dies, Yosef’s brothers grow fearful about how Yosef will now treat them: “And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died, and they said, ‘Perhaps Yosef will now nurse his hatred against us, and return to us all the evil that we have done to him'” (50:15). So what did they do? They invented a conversation that never happened:
And they commanded that Yosef be told, “Your father commanded, before his death, saying: ‘So shall you say to Yosef: Please forgive the iniquity of your brothers, and their trespass, for they have committed evil against you.’ So now, please forgive the sin of the servants of your father’s God.” And Yosef wept when they spoke to him (50:16-17).
Why did Yosef weep? Perhaps it was because his brothers thought ill of him or suspected that he could still be harboring resentment about what had happened so many years ago. Perhaps it was because it pained him to see his brothers so anguished. But I believe he wept for a different reason: He wept because he realized that his father never said – never could have said – such a thing. His father had never and would never break the implicit pact of silence around these matters. He wept because what was said after his father’s death – what had needed saying for so long-was never said in his father’s life.
He wept for Yaakov, for Yaakov died having never had a chance to talk about what was eating away at him – his suspicions about Yosef’s brothers and what they might have done – and he went to his grave with this cancer inside him. And he wept for himself, for never having been able to bring himself to talk to his father about his own suspicions and doubts, for never having been able to bring up all the messiness so that it could be expelled and a true relationship reestablished.
And he wept for his brothers: for his brothers who could not talk to him about these things before and who could not talk to him directly about their case even now, having to send someone to present it in their stead. He wept for his brothers who still could not talk about these things in their own voice, having to attribute them to their father Yaakov.
And perhaps he wept for his own silencing of his brothers: for the fact that he was so quick to forgive them when he first revealed himself to them that he did not give them a chance to talk about their guilt or their remorse. Here was a time when he needed to be silent so that others could be heard. To be forgiven before asking for forgiveness is a blessing, but it is also a curse. It silences voices that need to be heard. It prevents true healing from taking place.
We know well the power of speech. We know how words can kill and how they can heal. We must also know the power of silence. Silence can kill; it can kill a relationship, a friendship, or a marriage. But silence can also heal. A healing silence is one that does not cover up, avoid, or distract, but that makes space to listen, to open up, to allow another in, to allow another to speak. That is a silence that can give life. It is a silence that is a blessing to the soul: “There is a time to be silent, and a time to talk” (Kohelet, 3:7). Let us always know which is which so that both our talking and our silence bring with them life and healing for ourselves and for others.