Twelve years ago, Tarana Burke created a myspace page titled “me too” as a community project to give women of color a space to support and advocate for an end to sexual assault. One year ago, the New York Times and the New Yorker published reports that profiled widespread practices of harassment and cover-up within the American film industry. Six months ago, evangelical Women created the hashtag #silencenotspiritual with the goal of raising awareness around harassment and assault within the church. This week within the Jewish imagination, nine brothers sit in a circle and collude to silence the truth of their violence.
Parshat Vayeshev tells the story of the sons of Jacob stripping their brother Joseph, throwing him into a pit, and making themselves a meal. In Genesis 37:26, as they dine Judah speaks up and convinces his brothers that rather than letting Joseph die, they should sell him into slavery. When the next caravan passes by, the brothers sell Joseph.
A remarkable midrash collected in Tanchuma imagines the moments after this transaction. In the wake of their violence, the midrash describes the brother’s next move. They agree unanimously that they need to take an oath of silence, a binding agreement to never disclose what they’ve done. However, there’s a problem. An oath in the ancient near east required a minyan, ten entities to hold the pledge. With little Benjamin at home, Reuben mysteriously absent and Joseph sold away, there are only 9 brothers to seal the deal. The midrash suggests a creative and devastating solution to this numbers problem: “שִׁתְּפוּ לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּאוֹתוֹ הַחֵרֶם” “[the brothers] included the blessed holy one in that same oath” (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 2:5) God becomes a witness, a party, a bystander in the brother’s vow of silence.
Seemingly, this vow holds. Jacob, devastated, accepts the testimony of his sons. Rashi suggests that God, as a result of being a party to the oath, does not assuage Jacob’s misery. Instead, Jacob is left living within divine silence. The silence is not isolated to this single revelation. Rather God’s voice is absent for the remainder of the book of Genesis.
The Tanchuma’s reading of the brothers presents a theology that at once feels deeply true and profoundly disturbing. The midrash suggests that a group of men have tremendous power; not only can they conspire to conceal violent crimes, but they can unilaterally implicate God in their actions. They can sanctify oppressive silence. This is not a liberatory theology. God does not seem to be with those who suffer. Instead, God is either utterly absent or on the side of perpetrators of violence.
Only in the next book of the bible does God’s silence break. In the second chapter of Exodus, we learn that Israel’s cries of pain in the face of Egyptian slavery have risen up to God. At the burning bush, God says to Moses, “וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו׃ וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ ׀ מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרַ֗יִם” “I have heard their cries [which they cry] because of their task masters, I know their pain. I come down to save them from the hands of the Egyptians” (Shemot 3:7-8). Only Israel’s cries can break the oath, can bring back God’s voice and compassion. In the story of Joseph’s brothers, God’s voice is stolen by the perpetrators of violence. In Egypt, God’s voice is restored, God’s power for mercy renewed, in response and solidarity to those suffering violence.
The #metoo movement asks those of us with privilege, particularly cis-men who aren’t regularly subject to harassment, to make a choice. To which God do we pray? With our violence, with our silence, with our unwillingness to believe the stories of victims, we can worship the God of the brothers, the God of immoral collusion, the God who does not speak. Alternatively, through humility, through teshuva, through amplifying the voices of those who suffer, we can worship and actualize a God who speaks with compassion and justice, a God who punishes the hard hearted, a God who brings the potential of healing to a wounded world.
Let’s make the right choice
Let’s demand better of our brothers
Let’s join our voices to the צעק, the great cry, of those who suffer.
Let’s demand an end to silence.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance was written by Joey Glick. Joey is a second year rabbinical student at Hebrew College.