Don't Just Stand There--Do Something!
Preventing the brothers from taking positive action during the famine, fear also paralyzes us, rendering us incapable of addressing our most pressing spiritual, familial, and societal problems.
This is a sound moral teaching: don't be so proud that you can't admit when you're in trouble, or else you're just going to cause resentment in those around you. However, I don't think it fits the situation exactly: I don't see any other textual hint that the problem here is the perceptions of the other tribes or clans. To me, it seems like Jacob is addressing a family problem.
One commentator, Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain), partially agrees with Rashi's reading, but adds that maybe our key phrase means, "don't fight with each other." Now I think we're onto something--I might read this as "don't just stand there and fight each other when there is a famine, we have to act together if we're going to solve this problem." This makes sense to me, and would fit with the 10 brother's previously demonstrated capacity to turn on each other (i.e., the way they did with Joseph).
Following this theme of Jacob addressing the dynamics of the brothers themselves, the commentary I like best comes from the 15th century Italian rabbi Ovadiah S'forno, popularly known as "the S'forno." He reads lama titra-u as "why are you looking at each other?" Sforno is picking up on a basic human tendency to just ignore or deny problems, hoping that they will go away. He adds that, "each brother expected his fellow" to go and get the food they needed.
S'forno's reading of our verse makes the most sense to me because I can imagine all the emotional dynamics in this situation: there is a famine, which was probably the kind of disaster which didn't happen suddenly but slowly built up over time, thus allowing each person to hope that somebody else was going to take the lead in addressing the problem.
Furthermore, it wasn't the kind of problem--yet--that demanded immediate action; one could always hope that maybe tomorrow things will get better, and thus a cycle of denial and procrastination sets in, sometimes right up until the point when it's too late to take effective action.
We don't have to look farther than any day's headlines to see examples of this all-too-human tendency: there are pressing environmental problems which we each hope somebody else will make sacrifices to solve; there are homeless people on the streets; there are children in poverty; there are political, moral and social issues which are crying out for attention. It's so easy just to "look at each other," hoping somebody else will emerge with the courage and energy to name and address a problem which we know in our hearts is looming ahead of us.
Yet so often people seem paralyzed, unable or unwilling to take risks for a better world. In the case of the 10 brothers, I wonder if their collective unwillingness to go down to Egypt had to do with a dread of what they might find there.
Going back to chapter 37, we recall that the last the brothers had seen Joseph, they had sold him to a travelling caravan, on its way to Egypt (37:25-28). Could it be that their buried guilt and fear of confronting the past was so great that they didn't want to go to Egypt, even to buy necessary food, in order to avoid any possible confrontation with the living fact of their awful secret?
Maybe the real problem here is not merely complacency, or laziness, but fear. Fear not only of taking responsibility for oneself, but also fear of the truth. Yet no pressing problem can be solved without dedication to the truth above all; not our family problems, not our social problems, and not our spiritual problems.
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