Torah with no silver lining

*Warning: The material in this post is dark and potentially disturbing. It was originally a d’var Torah that I delivered in my Bible class as a reflection on the story of the Levite and his concubine that appears in Judges 19-21. If you are not familiar with the story, there is a Wikipedia page with a decent summary (and its own fair share of problems) here, or you can read the story in the original (and translation) here.

**The Hebrew word pilegesh that appears in the text is often translated as concubine, but this is probably an inexact translation. A pilegesh was likely a wife of lower status (a second or third wife). I use the word pilegesh to avoid any unwarranted associations with the word concubine.

I want to tell you the story of Maria. That’s not her real name, but I need to change some identifying details for confidentiality. I also want to warn you that Maria’s story is not easy to hear, but I think telling it is important, both for me and for you.

Maria was born in Mexico. She got married and had a daughter who was born with developmental disabilities. Her husband abandoned them, and Maria was left trying to care for her daughter alone. Unable to support them on the money she made in Mexico, Maria left her daughter with her family and paid a coyote to take her to the United States. The coyote told Maria he would set her up with a housecleaning company. Maria planned to work for several years to make money and then bring her daughter to the United States, where she would have access to better medical care and schools that could deal with her needs.

At the border, the coyote took all of Maria’s documents, blindfolded her, and put her in a truck. The coyote handed Maria over to a pimp, who kept Maria handcuffed at all times. During the day, she was held in an apartment with several other women, and at night she was driven to motels, her cuffs were locked to the bed, and she was forced to have sex with men who came into the room. If she protested or cried, she would be severely beaten.

One day, Maria cried so much after a John that her captor beat her and then called the police on her, telling the police that she was a prostitute. The police arrested Maria on charges of prostitution. She appeared in court, where, unable to speak English and severely traumatized, her public defender entered a guilty plea. Maria was sentenced to 11 months in jail, and then was transferred into immigration custody to be deported to Mexico, which is where I met her.

At the time, I was a legal assistant at a non-profit that provided legal services to detained immigrants and refugees who were facing deportation. Maria was brought over to me by several other women I knew in the women’s block at the jail. She was reluctant to speak or make eye contact at first, and it was only after the other women insisted that I talk to her that I pulled some chairs into a corner. For a few minutes, Maria answered basic questions flatly and without making eye contact. Finally, when I asked Maria if she had children, she broke. Her story came pouring out, and I struggled to pay attention and take notes and comfort her without touching her (touching detainees is forbidden).

Over the next few months, I spoke to Maria weekly because the jail did not have a female, Spanish speaking therapist and the Warden insisted that allowing Maria to talk to me fulfilled his obligation to care for her mental and emotional needs.

I dreaded these weekly meetings. I couldn’t do anything to help Maria, I couldn’t share her story with anyone except my supervisor because of client confidentiality, and instead of providing any benefit, I was taking on secondary trauma from her story, and so many more like it that I heard every week.

I’ve talked about Maria less than a handful of times in the five years since I met her.

Should I have brought her story out sooner? I don’t know. It’s not easy to tell, and I know it’s not easy to hear.

But I believe the story of the pilegesh teaches us that we should tell stories like this. The Torah doesn’t try to sugarcoat the story of the pilegesh. It is related almost without affect– like listening to a torture survivor tell his or her story. The story does not explicitly state its moral position on the incident, and the book of Judges doesn’t tell us why the story is there. The world of the Tanach was one in which death, famine, disease and warfare were common, so we are forced to ask, “what did the authors of this story, or earlier audiences, make of the incident?” And, in my inability to guess their reactions, “what do I make of the incident?”

Here’s where I’m at with this story: We can’t hide from the ugly– we need to tell and retell stories even, or especially, if they’re hard. We need to put the ugly out there, talk about it and deal with it.

It’s certainly more comfortable to pretend these bad things never happened, that we live in a world that is, as Rabbi Lappe put it, “happy happy”. But the inclusion of the story of the pilegesh teaches us that pretending it never happened isn’t the answer. I think that the inclusion of the story of the pilegesh was a deliberate decision to force us to confront this horrifying moment in our history. Despite the lack of explicit moral judgement in the story, I believe it was included in the book of Judges because even at the time, the authors of the book of Judges recognized a travesty of justice.

Stories like this make us question the essential nature of human beings, and force us to consider the possibility that we are capable of true evil. What does it mean that humans can deliberately inflict suffering on other humans? Am I capable of this kind of evil? How do I recognize early enough that someone has this evil in them, and what do I do when I see it?

I was confronted with these questions every day in my job in DC. In addition to working with women like Maria, I worked with many inmates who were in solitary confinement. Most of my clients who ended up in solitary were torture survivors or had been child soldiers in Sierra Leone, South Sudan, El Salvador, the Congo, Cambodia and other countries that have recently experienced civil war and genocide.

I had almost unrestricted access in the jails I worked in, and inmates in solitary are not allowed out of their cells even to receive legal counsel, so I was allowed to visit them in their cell blocks. Week after week, I kneeled in front of the food flap of my clients’ solitary cells, trying to listen to their stories of torture over the screams of the other inmates in the solitary cell block, in the desperate hope that we could find them legal relief from deportation. It is brutal, physically grueling, emotionally draining work that often ends in defeat. There is no silver lining for this work, no reward and no thanks.

I almost never talk about this because retelling it sucks. I don’t like revisiting this chapter of my life, I feel uncomfortable with the ethical and theological questions it gives me, and I often assume that no one wants to have this kind of suffering thrust upon them were I to open up. I also don’t know what to say to the inevitable question, “so what can I do about this?” I don’t know what to do, and I’m not sure there really is anything to be done– or at least, anything that feels effective and important.

The story of the pilegesh records two different responses to trauma. The priest has a much more intimate and personal connection to the tragedy, and his response is rash, drastic and hard to bear. Yet after he sends out the pieces of the corpse, he disappears from the story, and we lose his voice. B’nai Yisrael, who are drawn into the issue by a sense of moral outrage at what has happened in their midst, respond by launching a massive, societal campaign to eliminate the aggressors and make change. But their motivation flags, and they want to give up when they don’t see immediate results.

I can identify with both of these responses, and I feel lost. What does the Torah want me to do when I encounter injustice? How am I supposed to respond to pain?

My instinct is to draw inwards, to remove my voice and try to cover over my feelings. For lack of a good response, I opt for no response.

But then I read the story of the pilegesh, or the Akedah (binding of Isaac), or other stories of boundless pain in the Tanach, and I recognize that the Torah doesn’t shy away from being honest. Talking, being open, might be the right response. Retelling these stories, reliving them together, makes them more human. It’s exactly in inhabiting the pain together and supporting each other in it that we can make these stories stand for something, and that we can light the fire to change the way things work.

This is exactly what the incident of the pilegesh did for B’nei Yisrael– it woke them up to how low they had fallen. The story of the pilegesh is a call to honesty and to justice. It’s devastating to read that it took literally receiving a piece of corpse for B’nei Yisrael to recognize that they were a broken people, but it worked.

These aren’t the stories we want to tell. We don’t want to have to admit that the world is this way, and we see the reluctance of B’nei Yisrael to admit that there was this evil in their midst in the story of their battle against Binyamin– they know instinctively that they need to punish the people of Gibeah, but they don’t want to have to deal with the consequences. They’re sustaining heavy casualties, and the idea of killing their brothers because of the evil they committed is repugnant to them, so they cry out to God again and again, begging God to let them give up the fight. But God urges them onward.

It’s so hard to acknowledge pain in the world that can’t be fixed. After everything I’ve done, I still can’t understand how humans can cause each other so much pain. I have such a hard time wrapping my head around this evil that I avoid it. I don’t tell stories of my former clients or my work because I don’t know if I am making anything positive out of them.

I think the lesson of the pilegesh is that we can’t assume that everything needs to be for the better. We live in a complex world where some things don’t have a silver lining. But there is something powerful in being able to say, “Yes. Sometimes, the world is evil. There’s some real shit out there.” We need so badly for the world to be fundamentally good that when we see evil, it feels like an existential threat.

The power and importance of telling stories like Maria’s, like my time working with clients in solitary confinement, like the pilegesh, is that if we can name them  and face them, we can transform them. Being able to lean into the ugly is a show of strength against it. It’s telling the ugly, “I know you’re here, and I know you are real. But I am not afraid of you”.

This approach is so  hard. Most days, I can’t do it. I don’t even want to try. I want to cry out to God, and I want God to tell me that it’s ok, that I can stop fighting. But I know God won’t answer me that way.

Still, I’m here. I’m trying to turn my pain into words and to turn those words into Torah. I might not get it right every time. But Torah is eternal. And that means that if we don’t know what to make of the story of the pilegesh today, it will still be there tomorrow.

May we be able to face tomorrow unafraid.



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