Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Parashat Vayeshev begins the concluding drama of the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his 11 brothers, their estrangement and eventual reunion. Joseph is the favored son, and acts like it, so his brothers conspire to throw him in a pit, then sell him into slavery, then tell Jacob that Joseph was attacked by an animal. He ends up in Egypt, as the servant of a powerful man, Potiphar.
Meanwhile, his brother Judah is having problems of his own; his sons die childless, and he refuses to give his daughter-in-law Tamar to his youngest son so he may have children. She dresses like a prostitute, entices Judah to sleep with her, and she is vindicated as having acted correctly in the end, and bears children.
Potiphar’s wife desires Joseph, and when he refuses, he is thrown into prison, where he ends up interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants, which will eventually bring him to the attention of Pharaoh himself.
“His brothers saw that it was he [Joseph] whom their father loved more than all the brothers, and they hated him, and they could not speak with him peaceably.” (Genesis 37:4)
A familiar pattern in the Book of Genesis repeats itself in the story of Joseph and his brothers: one son is favored over the others, and there is tension, jealousy, and eventual estrangement within the family. In this case, Joseph brings “bad reports” about the brothers to their father, and they see Jacob giving Joseph special treatment, such as his ketonet passim, [a striped or more likely an ornamented/embroidered] coloured cloak. The brothers are angry, jealous, and resentful, and thus alienated from each other.
What struck me about this verse is the Torah’s description of the emotional state of the resentful brothers: “they could not [lo yachlu] speak with him peaceably.” It’s not quite clear what that last phrase means.
Rashi says they didn’t speak with him at all, whereas other commentators say that they spoke to Joseph resentfully, or spoke amongst themselves in non-peaceful ways against Joseph. Rashi at least tries to give the other brothers a little bit of credit by pointing out that at least they weren’t hypocrites: they didn’t pretend to love him while hating him in their hearts, but rather avoided him altogether.
Still, the force of the verse seems to imply that the brothers were so worked up emotionally against Joseph that they couldn’t help themselves. It’s not hard to understand their anger and jealousy: their father had given Joseph special gifts, and for many years had loved Joseph’s mother (Rachel) more than the mothers of the other brothers. Furthermore, Joseph seems to think of himself as special and privileged: he tattle-tales about his brothers to Jacob, and thus seems to cultivate this special relationship which excludes the other siblings.
Joseph is described as “the son of Jacob’s old age,” (verse 3), which may imply that Jacob doted on him in some unusual way as well, perhaps because Joseph was one of the youngest. Of course, the usual pattern in the ancient world is that the oldest child got the special privileges–although this is usually reversed in Genesis, it would be one more reason for the older brothers to hate the favored younger one.
However, even with all these perfectly understandable reasons for the brothers to hate Joseph, what does the Torah mean to teach us by saying they could not speak to him in peace? Why not just say they “did not?”
After all, when later they throw Joseph in the pit, we certainly wouldn’t absolve them of responsibility for a crime just because they had understandable reasons to hate their victim–people have to take responsibility for their actions, despite their emotional state. Perhaps one can’t help the way one feels, but Judaism certainly seems to advocate controlling how one reacts or acts up those emotions: “Who is the mighty one? The one who overcomes his/ her own impulses.”
While this is not a direct commentary on our verse, the Hassidic master Rabbi Nahman of Braslav (Hasidic leader in the Ukraine, 1772-1811) says something which illuminates the dynamic between Joseph and his brothers. Rabbi Nachman reminds us that “the one who guards himself from anger will not be ruled over by those who trouble him.”
I understand this to mean that if we act on our immediate emotional reactions to situations, we are not really in control of ourselves. If others are provoking us, they “rule” over us, because we’ve given them the power to influence our actions–and who wants to give over power in our lives to someone who is causing us trouble?
This emotional dynamic between Joseph and his brothers explains the vehemence of the next few paragraphs: in verses 5-11, Joseph reports having dreams in which sheaves of wheat, and even the sun and moon, bow down to him. Twice again, in verse 8 and verse 11, we are told that the brothers hated and were resentful of Joseph, because they accused him of wanting to rule over them.
On one level, this is a set-up for the end of the story, when the brothers will bow down to Joseph in Egypt, but on another level we can see the outlines of a tense psychological dynamic. The brothers resent and hate Joseph, and when he reports his dream, perhaps they hate him even more not only for his arrogance but because deep down they know he’s right–as long as their resentment towards Joseph takes up so much of their psychological energy, he already rules over them, emotionally!
One of our hardest challenges as humans is to stay spiritually centered and focussed when we are in great pain, and family dynamics can be the most painful issues that some of us will encounter in our lives.
Jacob’s sons couldn’t make him into a fair and wonderful father, who treated all of his children equally; it’s possible, however, that with grace, prayer, and self-examination they could have “guarded” themselves from the corruption of the spirit that follow from extended hate and anger. By giving ourselves over to negative, bitter emotions, we give up our freedom of choice, to an extent.
Thus, Joseph’s brothers “could not” speak to him peaceably; they gave free reign to their resentment, and it ruled them. Had they chosen to avoid someone they disliked, that’s another matter, but by allowing themselves to be filled with their anger, it ruled them, and led them down a path where they ended up throwing Joseph in the pit, and selling him into slavery. Their hatred of another, born out of their pain and feelings of rejection and jealousy, turned them into something worse than what they hated. Joseph was arrogant, but the brothers became violent.
The story does have a happy ending, but in the meantime, Joseph becomes a slave, Jacob lives in grief, and at least a few of the brothers live uneasily with their guilt (to judge from their words much later)–which all could have been avoided, perhaps, had there been an attempt to cleanse the soul of poisonous emotion, and live closer to ideals, despite the circumstances.
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