Who Are Our Brothers?

Early in this week’s parashah, we find Joseph in search of his brothers. He’s already dreamt, and reported on, his notable dreams. His siblings have already developed a contempt for him, unable even to speak a kind word. Now his father, Israel, has sent him on a quest to check on their wellbeing as they pasture the flocks.

So Joseph walks to Shechem. Not finding his brothers or the flocks immediately, he begins wandering about in the fields, hoping to come them. Instead, he happens upon a man (or the man happens upon him), who asks, “What are you looking for?” Joseph answers, “I am looking for my brothers.” To which the unnamed man responds, “nas’u mizeh.”

“Nas’u mizeh,” is usually translated, idiomatically, as “they have travelled from here.” That is, they’ve gone someplace else. But zeh, the demonstrative pronoun, is most literally translated as “this.” “They have gone from ‘this.'” Rashi asks the question, “What’s the ‘this’ from which they’ve travelled?” And he answers: “They have left behind the sense of brotherhood.” Joseph is looking for his brothers; in fact he is without brothers, alien and alone.

“Brotherhood” is a term rooted in family, but family is not the last word on brotherhood and sisterhood. It is possible to lose a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood, even with one’s own siblings. Conversely, we can cultivate a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood with people with whom we do not share a parent. Much what’s good about the many religions of the world is the way that they encourage their adherents to expand their notion of which “others” are in fact “brothers.”

In El Paso, we have a tremendous opportunity to practice extending our view of “brotherhood.” The people of Juarez, a terribly violent city these past several years, ought to occupy an important place in our consciousness. We are bound up with them economically and geographically. Many El Pasoans are brothers with Juarenses in the most literal sense, sharing the bond of blood. And yet, the presence of an increasingly militarized international border strains our capacity to act, or even feel, like brothers. For decades, El Paso reaped the benefits of its proximity to our larger and more colorful neighbor on the southern bank of the Rio Grande…and now, there’s talk of undoing the “sister city” relationship El Paso and Juarez have had for decades. Nasanu mizeh. We have departed from the sense of shared responsibility and shared destiny that characterize our relationship with our brother and sister Juarenses.

The geographical proximity of El Paso to Juarez brings this issue into stark relief, but readers anywhere in the world might stop and think about those brothers and sisters for whom they no longer feel a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood. Are there people, or groups of people, whom you ought to care for in that way, but don’t? What might you do to reclaim that sense of shared belonging?

I’m a huge fan of singer-songwriter Tom Russell, who lives in El Paso and writes music about the border. I’ll let him have the last word this week, singing “Goodnight, Juarez,” and reminding us (wherever we live!) that a piece of our soul is lost when we go to sleep peaceful and secure while our brothers and sisters suffer…

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