Avivah Zornberg on Joseph and His Brothers

zornbergAvivah Gottlieb Zornberg is one of my very favorite biblical scholars. She’s got a new book out called The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. I studied with Zornberg at the Hebrew College in Boston for a week and it was transformational. It took a few days before the rest of the class realized I wasn’t Jewish and then they were fascinated by why I would be there. Apparently, they were mostly familiar with Christians who wanted to convert them rather than those who wanted to join with them to study scripture.

This section from Zornberg’s essay on Joseph and his Brothers and the trauma that happens in families has resonance for me as I enter Holy Week:

Only by turning towards one’s wound – the wound of reality – only from within that wound – can the event become accessible. ‘Shelterless,’ vulnerable, ‘answerless’, language must ‘pass through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.’ For the testimonial power of language to work, however, a listening Other is required. ‘The history of a trauma …. can only take place through the listening of another.’ For Joseph, does such a healing moment occur?

I suggest that it does occur, but in a fragmentary, suspended manner. The moment of healing is precipitated by Judah, as he breaks through the line of his brothers (‘And Judah came close to him …’ [44:18]) and speaks with passion into Joseph’s ears. This speech, a long, poignant account of the history of the bereaved father, has the ultimate effect of  making Joseph break down: ‘And Joseph could no longer restrain himself …’ (45:1) A long silence, the silence of survival, collapses, and Joseph gives his sole testimony to the past: ‘“I am Joseph your brother whom you sold to Egypt.”’ (45:3) These are the only words in which Joseph ever bears witness to that day in the pit. With them, there begins the passage through answerlessness, through the exile of the word.

Read her whole essay here.

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