Lessons for 2017 from the Joseph Story

The Book of Genesis is a great casebook for a course on Dysfunctional Family life. From Cain and Abel to Isaac and Ishmael to Jacob and Esau to the story we begin this week of Jacob’s 12 sons, we have a series of stories of sibling rivalry promoted by parental favoring of one child over another.

This theme reaches a climax in the JOSEPH STORY which begins with our Parsha here in Genesis 37 and continues to the end of the book. Jacob, who should have been aware of the damage that parental favoritism can inflict upon sibling rivalry, nonetheless compensates for the loss of his beloved Rachel, by overtly favoring her first born, Joseph. The result, as described in the portion we read this morning, is, that by age 17, Joseph is an arrogant spoiled brat, who has earned the enmity and hatred of his 10 half- brothers.

There is certainly a bit of irony in the fact that the first word of the Joseph story, and therefore the name of our Parsha is Vayeshev which means settle. This Parsha is on multiple levels unsettling. Vayeshev is a story of jealousy and hatred. It is a story of favoritism and exclusion. It is a story of multiple betrayals. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers. They throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. In the section I read this morning the story gets very unclear as to who sold Joseph to the Ishmaelite and who planned to save him. Was it Reuven or Judah who sought to save Joseph? What was the exact role of the Midianites and the Ishmaelites? Who sold Joseph to whom? Who profited? The result however is clear: good intentions not followed by good actions always result in someone getting hurt. What is clear is: The brothers betrayed their father, Jacob, when they let him think that Joseph was dead. I believe that the Bible is teaching us a lesson that we human beings, have yet to learn, namely that the “cover up” is always worse than the crime.

The Children of Israel’s betrayal of their brother Joseph, and their father Jacob, lead me to ask myself and you on this eve of a new secular year and the festival of Rededication called Chanukah:

Who have we betrayed by our own need to be right? Who have we betrayed by our need to exclude others? Who have we betrayed out of arrogance? Who have we betrayed out of jealousy?

Who have we betrayed by covering up our own transgressions or the actions of others out of misplaced loyalty or love?

Chanukah, our festival of lights coincides with the winter solstice. As the natural world grows dark, we Jews, affirm that with God’s inspiration we can bring light into the darkest of places. The Joseph story, as it will continue to unfold over the next three weeks teaches us, that without forgetting the wrongs of the past, we can transform the future through forgiveness and change.

Joseph teaches us this lesson in the second half of next week’s Parsha, Miketz, the Biblical narrative recounts Joseph’s reconnection with the brothers. The Torah tells us that Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not know him. Joseph, being a very human Jew, was caught in a real dilemma. He wasn’t yet willing to reveal his identity and welcome with open arms these brothers who had betrayed him, but neither was he able to turn away his brethren in their time of famine. The Question that Torah puts into the mouth of Cain in the opening of Genesis is answered here in the concluding narrative by Joseph: Yes, he is his brothers’ keeper! Yes, even though he doesn’t always like their actions; and yes despite the fact that his children will form separate tribes from that of his brothers’ descendants, Joseph and all the Children of Israel from his generation onward will be tied to each other by both a common heritage and a common destiny.

In the 21st century, with our perspective of hindsight, we know that the ancient tribal divisions of Israel, named for 11 of Jacob’s sons and two of his grandsons, were not the most cohesive of relatives. Over the millennium we are taught that Sinat Chinam, unwarranted enmity and hatred that arose between differing groups of Jews has been the cause of devastation. Today we Jews are also divided into tribal groups by both legitimate differences over religious theology and practice, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal among others, and political preferences, such as Democratic and Republican or Labor and Likud. Tragically, in addition to these legitimate differences of opinion and ideology we contemporary Jews also find ourselves susceptible to the (Sinat Chinam), the baseless hatred that our Talmudic rabbis claim was the cause of the destruction of both the First and Second Biblical Jewish Commonwealths. There is truth in the cliché that we all need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

As the new Trump administration takes over in Washington next month, I am certain that there will be many issues over which I will differ with my fellow Jews as well as my fellow Americans, of every religion race and ethnicity. My hope and prayer, for us all, at this time of Chanukah, is, May we all rededicate ourselves to Joseph’s understanding of the answer to the question of Cain and remember that even though we may not agree with, or even like, every other, within our community, or in our world, we all are responsible for each other.

The message of Chanukah is to rededicate ourselves not only to the love of God but equally important to the love of our family our friends, our community, and the stranger as well. Rather than trying to lift ourselves up by pushing others into an actual or metaphorical “pit” I challenge myself and each of you on the eve of this Chanukah to dedicate ourselves to learn the converse from the Joseph story.

May this Shabbat bless us with the strength to love each person in our life uniquely for who they each are? May this Shabbat bless us with the courage to do T’Shuvah for our betrayals of our brothers and sisters; and teach us to appreciate what we have? Rather than being jealous of others, may we all come to rejoice in the light we can each bring into the world?

About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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