The Dreamer & The Shepherd: Parshat Yayeshev

The Torah, especially the book of Genesis is infatuated with the nature of sibling relationships as it continually wrestles with Cain’s first question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. In other words, what level of responsibility do I have to my family? Naturally, brothers and sisters fight for parental love and admiration. Jealousy and competition can be found in some degree between all siblings. This seems to be the case when we look at Joseph and his relationship with his older brothers. On the surface, it appears to be a rather typical sibling rivalry as one brother becomes the favorite child, inspiring animosity among the others.This conflict is different though. It is much darker, deeper, and explosive. They do not just dislike Joseph, they actually hate him. “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons…And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Genesis 37:3-4). Brothers disagree, but rarely does it evolve into  a murderous scheme.

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So what transformed this seemingly predictable sibling schism into an unpredictable collision? Why did this clash escalate so rapidly and with so much passion?

Perhaps the conflict was so deeply rooted since Joseph and his brothers had a seemingly incompatible outlook on the world. According to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his essay “Dream and Visions” the brothers had “two antithetical ways of life” and “two different philosophies”. The brothers were shepherds and Joseph was a dreamer. These were not just occupations, but what ultimately informed their core ideologies and personalities.  

The shepherd preserves what came before him. The shepherd lives within nature and the natural order of the world. He is content leaving the world as it is. His job is not to change but to maintain. The dreamer is the exact opposite, as he is focused on transformation and change. He lives outside of the natural order, and is always on the the side of progress. The dreamer sees not what the world is now, but what it can be.

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The brothers tragically failed to see a way that they could live under the same tent with Joseph and his divergent beliefs and perspectives. The tension that naturally arises when people fundamentally disagree was overwhelming  and perhaps even terrifying for them. Instead of wrestling with that discomfort, they eliminated it by displacing Joseph. They dreams content of them bowing down to Joseph was of little significant — it was the very fact that he was a dreamer. The brothers wanted to not only crush his dreams but the entire dreaming enterprise.

Joseph was also guilty. He only dreamed of a situation where the brothers bowed down to him and his way of life. All of Jacob’s children ignored the possibility of a potential collaboration or even compromise. However different the dreamer is from the shepherd, the two have much to learn from each other. A dreamer needs to be educated by the the shepherd on the beauty of preservation and tradition. The shepherd likewise must learn the power of creativity and innovation from the dreamer.  

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Sadly, the Jewish world seems just as divisive and incapable of living in harmony as Joseph and his brothers. We spend so much of our energy creating superficial walls that only further divide us at a time when we must unite. We make our tent smaller when we need to be making it bigger. Reconstructionist. Reform. Conservative. Orthodox. Modern Orthodox. Open Orthodox. Haredi. Chabad. Is there any sense of a collective Jewish people anymore? Perhaps the first step towards reconciliation is a collective acknowledgement that some Jews are dreamers and some are shepherds.

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and is pursuing a master's degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University
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