Surviving Family Trauma, Silence to Strength

Several years ago, I created a set of text-study sessions to accompany a series of talks by Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg at the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.

I will not try to replicate Dr. Zornberg's talk on the Joseph Story here. For one thing, you can find it in The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. For another, participants in the program very soon gave up predicting what Avivah would do with each rabbinic teaching in sequence, as her talks inimitably wove the sources together with Freud and Winicot, Worsdsworth and Thomas Mann, in ways impossible to duplicate.

Four of the rabbinic teachings regarding the Joseph-story that we continue reading this week have stayed with me since that retreat - and they are worth considering in their own right, as acknowledging aspects of the experience of trauma in the family context, in ways that may be surprising in ages-old sources.

Sworn to Silence:

One teaching, which comes down through the ages in an obscure manuscript of commentary, asks why Joseph never sent word to his father, as Joseph rose to the post of viceroy, that he was alive and well in Egypt.

The teaching notices that, when Joseph shocks his siblings with his true identity - years after their casting him into a pit and selling him into slavery - the Bible says, "No man stood with him, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers" (Genesis 45:1), and the author of the commentary suggests:

"When the brothers undertook, by force of a ban of ostracism, never to tell of what they had done, they imposed the same ban upon Joseph himself, never to reveal the matter."

We can understand the perpetrators of violence swearing one another to silence on pain of ostracism. The more penetrating insight is that the victim may experience a similar threat of ultimate alienation. Right in the midst of Joseph's being reunified with his family, this teaching recognizes that - at least as far as his own experience of the moment is concerned - Joseph must risk being more alone than ever if he is to speak openly about what happened to him.

Secret Knowing:

Toward the very end of Jacob's life, Joseph brings his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, to receive their grandfather's blessing. Oddly, although Joseph arranges the children in order of their birth, Jacob crosses his hands, placing his right hand on the youngest son, and when Joseph moves to correct his father's apparent mistake, Jacob says, "I know it, my son, I know it." (Genesis 48:19)

Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of teachings compiled around the ninth century of the Common Era, notes the perfect form of the verb that Jacob speaks in this response, and proposes:

"Jacob said to Joseph: What is it you suppose? I asked you so many times, 'What did your brothers do to you?' - and you would not tell me. Do you suppose I did not know? I knew, my son, I knew."

This text is a poignant recognition of the kind of knowledge that can exist in a family for years without ever being spoken aloud, sometimes so crucial but difficult to acknowledge that it comes out strangely and indirectly in moments seemingly unrelated to the underlying, unspoken trauma.

Stepping Forward to Hear:

Our Torah-reading this week, called Vayigash, is named for the opening verse, "Then Judah approached Joseph" (Genesis 44:18). Judah is coming forward to tell the story of his family, pleading for the life of the brother Joseph has now imprisoned in Egypt, in Joseph's own elaborate and round-about way of getting at his own story.

Genesis Rabbah, a compilation of rabbinic teachings from the first four centuries of the Common Era, opens its commentary on this moment with the Proverb, "Counsel is like deep water in the heart of a man" (Proverbs 20:5), and says:

"This may be compared to a deep well of water, fresh and good, but inaccessible. Then one came who tied rope to rope, and thread to thread, and cord to cord, and drew from the well, and then all could draw from it and drink. Just so, Judah did not cease from responding to Joseph, word after word, until he stood at his heart."

We have said that Joseph had to pass through a terror of utter aloneness, which no one else could fathom, in order to speak forthrightly. Nobody could stand just where he was in that moment. That does not mean nobody could be close by. This ancient rabbinic teaching about Judah recognizes how vital it is for someone to be present, to acknowledge at least parts of the experience, and to be ready for a reservoir of long-pent-up words, to enable the survivor to speak.

The Strength of Speaking:

Survivors may often feel that even more powerlessness and vulnerability than at the time of a trauma itself will result from acknowledging the experience.

Often just the opposite turns out to be the case.

When Jacob dies, his children suddenly become fearful of Joseph. (Genesis 50) Apparently they presume Joseph has only forgone revenge upon his brothers out of respect for their still-living father.

Midrash Tanchuma, which compiles teachings of Talmudic vintage, notices that the brothers' fear of Joseph is mentioned in the context of their journey together to Canaan from Egypt and back, to bury Jacob, and proposes:

"As they returned from burying their father, they saw that Joseph went to make a blessing at the pit into which his brothers had thrown him, and he blessed as one is supposed to bless at a place where one has experienced a miracle, saying, 'Blessed is the Almighty who performed a miracle for me in this place.'"

What terrifies the brothers is Joseph's being able to walk right up to the place of his abuse at their hands, to look directly at it, and to speak of it as a place of tremendous survival.