Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah –Vayeishev
Whether we like it or not, our children are watching. They are often more perceptive than the most expensive spies using exorbitant technologies. Your children don’t spy on you; they live with you. They are not tracking your spending account or phone records. They listen and observe and learn how you live, how you think, how you verbalize, and how you love … or don’t. A parent’s best stories stem from when they first heard a child parrot back the most inappropriate things they heard a parent say. As we learn from so many sage voices, “Apples don’t fall far from the tree.”
Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter – of which we know (the only ones to which the Bible speaks). Each has some major issues. He certainly chose his favorites and treated the others as “also-rans.” His sons were bloodthirsty (Shechem) and conniving (Joseph).
Joseph was the most beloved because his mother (Rachel) was most beloved. Jacob favored him in the same way that his mother (Rebecca) favored him over his twin brother (Esau). In the generation prior, Abraham chose Isaac over his older brother Ishmael, throwing Ishmael and his mother out of camp. Jacob fostered the superiority that Joseph felt over his brothers. The young man dreamed that his brothers and parents both bowed before him. Yes, as the reader, we know that this foreshadowed events to come. That said, in the moment, it only continued the dysfunction that ripped the family apart multi-generationally.
While the tradition tries to make the argument that the nightmare occasioned upon Joseph by his brothers was part of God’s plan to get him to Egypt so that he could save the world and reunite with his family, I remain unconvinced. Yes, he saves Egypt from the famine foretold in Pharaoh’s dreams. Yes, he feeds people from all over the place for a few years. Yes, he will reconcile with his family and even forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery, and all that followed. However, in that reconciliation, he continues the inbred – spiritually DNA based bias favoring one over the other. Egypt will eventually run out of grain, and Egyptians will sell everything they own to Joseph to get their confiscated grain back. When they run out of things to sell, they sell themselves into slavery to Pharaoh just to survive – again, on the grains they grew but which Joseph confiscated for the greater good.
All the while, Jacob and the whole family will accept Joseph’s invitation to move to the Nile Delta and live there. In the midst of the famine, this region was still plush, and Joseph provided for his family to the “want of every child.” Joseph’s family thrived in Egypt, even as the Egyptians perished in hunger.
As Joseph will die, the Book of Genesis will end. Exodus begins with the beleaguered and oppressed Egyptians’ insurrection overthrowing the government, wiping Joseph from memory, and enslaving Israel.
Even short term gains cannot absolve horrible patterns of behavior or stave off their long term impact. One can claw his way to the top of the food chain on the backs of others for whom the resentment will only fester until it reaches a boiling point. When the explosion happens, one can trace the myopia of privilege (favoritism) that keeps the group in power from understanding why their status falls apart. Those in power feel victimized by the folks rebelling simply trying to cast-off the oppression under which they have suffered – seeking justice. This is the story of Israel in Egypt. We see this phenomenon proved throughout history, and our society faces it currently over systemic racism plaguing our country for the 401 years of slavery on our shores.
Everyone matters. If we stand true to the teachings of faith, we can never feel whole so long as others are left empty. As the sages teach, if one is oppressed, none can be free. We cannot dismiss someone’s pain because we do not understand. We need to open our eyes and hearts and return each other’s status to human: the personal cost today will ensure the heaven we leave to our children tomorrow.