William Hamilton

Generous assumptions

“Don’t ever hesitate to ask for help” said a stranger at a Tel Aviv ATM Machine to one of the participants on our ADL Counterterrorism mission.  “People in this country want to help in any way they can” he concluded after assisting a Massachussetts law enforcement officer with his transaction last Sunday.  This warm encounter was refreshingly non-transactional.

Some of our mission’s most meaningful conversations occurred at meals.  Breaking bread with fellow law enforcement leaders of Israel’s Security Departments invited learning and bonding.  Meals often offer settings for connection and content sharing.  In this week’s portion of Torah a meal provided by an unrecognized Joseph with his estranged brothers provides an occasion for healing.

Joseph is testing his brothers.  Will they still harbor jealousy when one sibling is singled out for preferential treatment?  He provides Benjamin, the only other brother born from their beloved mother Rachel, five times as much food as the rest of the brothers receive (Gen. 43:34).  When they don’t appear envious, Joseph knows that they have matured beyond the days when multi-colored coats would arouse their ire.  It is also noteworthy that Joseph stages this test over a meal.  Years earlier his brothers had cold-heartedly partaken of a meal after having stripped him of his coat and cast him into a pit (Gen. 37:25).  The resentment that animated their dining back then is repaired by their non-resentful meal provided in an Egyptian palace.

One could argue that they were too terrified about the prospect of not being able to restore Benjamin back home to their father Jacob.  Yet as Rabbi Michelle Fisher pointed out in our learning this week, their lack of jealousy when they were overcome with fear is even more impressive.  Their fear could have aggravated their annoyance. 

Indeed, we are not at our best when we’re afraid, angry, exhausted, confused, or in pain.  Instead, it is when we can consider, measure, and purposefully act that tend to be more consistent and reliable.   Try standing in another person’s shoes the next time you experiences a slight or insult – especially when it seems out of character.  The offender may be emotionally depleted.  This does not excuse the an indignity’s impact, but it may enable you to generously acquit unintentional wrongs.

The generosity of Hanukkah is less about gelt and gift-giving than it is about generous assumptions we bring to a day’s interactions.  May we assume more generously in this season as we share magnanimous meals than nourish and heal.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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