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The problem of distance and its antidote

The story of Joseph and his brothers yields a way to build bridges across the rifts of our polarized society
Joseph Sold by His Brothers, by Francesco Maffei, c. 1657-8. (Wikimedia Commons)
Joseph Sold by His Brothers, by Francesco Maffei, c. 1657-8. (Wikimedia Commons)

We live in a time of heightened polarization, where divergent camps often operate in silos and interact in hurtful ways. We see this within the broader American political community, within the Jewish community and between the American Jewish community and Israel. How can we begin to heal these rifts? Are there steps we can take to build bridges across increasing divides? The story of Joseph and his brothers, which begins in Parshat Vayeshev, serves as a model for initiating engagement amidst polarization.

The story opens with 17-year-old Joseph boasting of dreams in which his brothers, and then his whole family, seem to bow down to him. Joseph, perhaps encouraged by his father’s devotion to him, sees himself as separate from, and superior to, his brothers. It is not surprising that he brings dibatam ra’ah, evil accounts, against his brothers to his father. Once one removes oneself from a group and sees oneself as superior, it is easier to criticize and harshly judge that group as a whole.

Joseph’s brothers are so infuriated with Joseph that they are unable to dabro le-shalom, speak to him, in peace. Jacob, perhaps wanting to reconcile the brothers, sends Joseph on a mission to sha’al et shlom aheikha, literally, ask your brothers’ welfare, but metaphorically seek the peace (shalom) that is amiss. Joseph understands this message, for when a strange man finds him lost, Joseph tells him et ahai anokhi mevakesh, literally I seek my brothers, but on a deeper level, I seek the brotherhood I know I have lost.

Unfortunately, as Joseph approaches his brothers, they can only see him from a distance, va-yiru oto merahok. Before Joseph could come close, u-beterem yikrav elekhem, the brothers plot to kill him. The emotional and psychological distance between them is too vast. In this distance, the brothers think the worst of Joseph and determine to permanently rid themselves of him.

When Joseph is instead sold into slavery in Egypt, however, he begins to undergo a transformation. Joseph eventually interprets the dreams of Pharaoh, his chief butler and chief baker. In this way, the dreamer who boasted of dreams of superiority learns to look beyond personal aspirations and help others interpret and realize their dreams.

After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph proposes a solution to sustain all of Egypt and its neighbors during years of famine. When Pharaoh appoints Joseph to enact this solution, Joseph learns that being a leader is not about people bowing down to him, it is about his rising to meet the people’s needs.

If a harbinger of polarization is distance, then an antidote is to come close. A turning point occurs towards the end of the story after Judah comes close to Joseph, vayigash elav Yehuda, and speaks directly into his ear in full vulnerability. It is at this moment that Joseph, who was concealing his identity from his brothers, can no longer remain distant from them and reveals who he is.

The word vayigash, to come close, continues to be a leitwort, leading word, in the reconciliation. The brothers are initially frightened by Joseph’s revelation so Joseph urges them to geshu na, come close and they vayigshu, came close.

After they have each come close to the other, Joseph tells them, “Ani Yoseph ahikhem” I am Joseph your brother. He does not say, “I am Joseph your leader,” or “Joseph the dreamer,” but Joseph your brother. Joseph further urges the brothers to live in the land of Goshen (which sounds similar to the word vayigash) because, as Joseph explains, Goshen is karov aili, close to me.

The Joseph that used to bring evil reports about his brothers, who the brothers could not dibru, talk with le-shalom, in peace, now physically embraces his brothers. The brothers react by “dibru ehav ito” speaking (directly) with him. Once Joseph and his brothers come close to one another, the communication turns from criticism to an exchange of brotherhood.

In our current time of polarization, it is tempting to view the “other” solely merahok, from a distance. As the story of Joseph and his brothers shows, however, extensive distance can breed criticism, harsh judgment and even malevolence. The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers demonstrates the importance of being vayigash, of coming close to one another despite differences in vulnerability and authenticity. If we practice coming close, hopefully we will be able to increasingly speak to one other be-shalom, in peace.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a facilitator-in-training through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across charged political differences. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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