Hepzibah Alon

Joseph and His Brothers

These past weeks we have been reading the story of Joseph and his brothers in the world’s biggest book club, reading the same chapters worldwide everywhere. Wow. What a story: reads like a novel, so appealing they have made a Disney movie and a musical out of it. The story of Joseph has enough symbolism, imagery, and archetypal resonance for many more movies too. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) wrote that although Freud would have us believe that the main tension of our society is built on the one between fathers and sons (Oedipus and Laius), in our tradition it is in actuality a tension of sibling rivalry as evidenced by so many rivaling siblings in the Tanach: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Ishmael and Isaac, and of course, Joseph and his brothers.

Rabbi Sacks has a compelling and beautiful interpretation for how Joseph represents the plight of the Jewish people as a whole, struggling to be accepted by the other faiths.  I have been thinking lately about how this story is not only applicable to our brothers from the other monotheistic religions with whom there have been tensions (to put it mildly!) throughout the ages, but  to our Jewish “brothers” in American universities, elite and not so elite, those busy protesting in  the major cities of the west under banners such as “Jewish Voices for Peace,” “Jews for Ceasefire,” “Jews for Justice for Palestinians” and many more such iterations in various word order: out on the streets, “occupying” university campus offices, using social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter, currently known as Twitter, who cares?). Riding high on their credibility as Jews, some even claim to be (and some are) the descendants of Holocaust survivors. Now, if these various people really are Jews, then they belong to our book club, although whether they have come prepared for class and done their reading, I know not. 

But, before I get back to these guys, let’s get down to the story in its (very) abridged form: the ten brothers, sick of Joseph being their father’s favorite, sick of his literal dreams of grandeur and his narcissism and his arrogance, conspire to rid themselves of Joseph who feels different to them, who they don’t want in their family unit. Originally intending to kill him,  they stage his death by wild animal for their father and throw him into a pit instead, selling him into slavery to be taken down to Egypt (thank you, Reuven, for changing the potential rating of this episode  from R to PG-13).

Long story made very very short: their father, Jacob (Israel) grieves, Joseph ends up (after many adventures and misadventures and years, a stint in prison and some good old Jewish dream interpretations where our friend Freud got his ideas) as Viceroy to the Pharaoh, now physically unrecognizable to his brothers, having aged and wearing the garb of an Egyptian royal. When famine comes to the land, the brothers need help and end up (after some mild revenge on Joseph’s part) reunited as a family with their “lost” brother found (credit for the euphemistic language  to the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, re: Emily Hand). The brothers admit to and atone for what they did to Joseph, starvation through famine is averted and the people of Israel, as we are the descendants of these brothers and their father, continue as a nation into the rest of history. 

The Tanach tells us that in the intervening years when Joseph rose to  power in Egypt, he named his first born, Menashe (literally meaning to cause to forget), born of an Egyptian royal wife, to help him forget his past and “his father’s household” the memory of which, understandably, caused him so much pain. His second son, he named Ephraim, because nonetheless, “in the land of [his] suffering,” God had made him fruitful (Genesis: 41: 51,52).

The story of Joseph and his brothers has parallels to the relationship today between Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. We are all “the sons of one man,” as the brothers tell the unrecognized Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 42:10). And, although we share that family lineage, we often see things in different ways because the realities we live in are so different. Israeli Jews are not struggling to maintain an identity as a minority living in a dominant majority culture. Their struggle is an external one and not an internal one.

I read lately about how lonely American progressive Jews feel if they support Israel. Israelis are not feeling lonely. We are in this tragedy that has unfolded since October 7th together, for better and for worse, despite the differences in politics or religious observance, despite whether we support or hate or are apathetic to the current government,  our sons and our daughters go off to war together. We feel grief, we mourn, we are terrified, we are furious,  but loneliness is not one of our main worries. Many, even most, of the Diaspora Jewry has shown support of Israel during these tragic times here and they grieve too, and their grief from the other side of the world, brings us together as brothers.  But there is a  small (albeit loud) minority of the Jews of the Diaspora that see Israel as that annoying, arrogant brother, whose story does not fit their narrative of what they would like Jews to be. They feel only discomfort being associated with the  retaliation and destruction that has gone on in Gaza (the horrors of a war started by Hamas), discomfort with Jews as a powerful force to be reckoned with after so many centuries of being cast in the role of the underdog of history.

They would be more comfortable if they could just get rid of that pesky brother, throw him in a pit and sell him to the Arab world.  They feel no grief for him. His dreams are presumptuous ones of self determination  as a proud majority, perhaps at the expense of others (as every other country in history has had dreams at the expense of others),  he is not a humble Jew, he does not tow the latest progressive line, he is a nationalist in an age when nationalism is a dirty word. 

Parshat Miketz, what we read this week, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt and unknowingly  seek his help to survive the famine, should be a reminder to that small minority of pro-Palestinian Jewish protestors that for better and for worse,  our fates are tied together as brothers in this world. And, although you may think you are currying favor by protesting Israel, your whole survival depends on the State of Israel whether you like it or not. There is an enemy that is hell-bent on our destruction, all of our destruction, yours too (see: Hamas charter). There are other enemies as well, antisemitism in all forms that has reared its ugly head for all to see in the past two months or so (see: University presidents of MIT, Harvard and Penn, see crowds chanting “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea”).

In World War II,  Hitler’s hordes took no note of German Jews that proudly had served in armies predating the Nazis, took no note of “good” Jews that had assimilated or even converted or looked down in shame at their less refined  brothers in the Shtetl. We all died together. Israel has helped the Jews of the Diaspora to stand strong since 1948. No more can you trample on Jews without accountability by at least one country in the world. And, whether we like you or not over here, we will, by law, accept you as citizens should you be chased, God forbid, out of the countries you reside in. 

The Haftorah for Parshat Miketz, continuing with the theme of dreams from Joseph’s story, is from the book of Kings and opens with Solomon awakening from a dream: Solomon’s plea to God to be able to discern between good and bad, wrong and right. Solomon, the wisest king  in Jewish ancient history, has the humility to ask God for help to make sure he knows the difference so he can mete out Justice. To my brothers and sisters who are out there protesting for justice in Palestine: in the words of Shakespeare’s Kent from  King Lear: “See better, Lear, and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye.”

The people who committed the brutal, inhumane atrocities of October 7th, both the Hamas terrorists and the streams of Palestinians that came in after them to finish the job, were not here in peace. Hamas leaders have stated outright that they will not rest until Israel (and all the Jews) are wiped off the map. The Palestinians that greeted the hostages still alive that were dragged back into Gaza with stones and fists were not there in peace. Some of those hostages were hidden by regular old civilians, doctors, UNWRA workers. To my brothers and sisters who are outraged over what is going on in Gaza: You are lucky that you live in countries where you do not have to have a war in order to survive (for now). The vast majority of  Israeli Jews do not want a war, but the vast majority have no place else to go. We would prefer to send our children to university than to the army where their lives are in danger. We would prefer to live in peace with our neighbors like other civilized countries do. We have no choice.  War is ugly. Civilian deaths are a tragedy; Israel does their best to avoid them while Hamas’ whole goal is to achieve them. Have the wisdom to discern. See better! 

The story of Joseph is imprinted on our collective memory. It is ironic that despite the fact  that Joseph  named his son Menashe in order to forget his father’s household, it is his son that we remember every single Shabbat when we bless our sons at the Shabbat table. We cannot forget who we are, although that part of our identity might be painful to us. It is, nonetheless, our identity.  Israeli Jews and the Jews of the Diaspora are intertwined forever in a bond. We have the same father, Jacob who became Israel. We cannot escape each other’s fate. We have the same enemies, no matter which protest you align with.

We would like to make it into the rest of history, despite the forces that would prefer we did not. We would like this country to be a place we can be proud of and we are working towards it as all democracies are works in progress. You can criticize your imperfect family; sometimes you can even run away from them, but you cannot ever completely forget them. You will partake of their fate, like it or not.

About the Author
Hepzibah Alon received her Masters degree in English literature from Bar Ilan University and her Bachelors degree in English Literature and Linguistics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Having been a teacher for nearly two decades, she currently heads the English department and teaches English at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
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