When a Brother Hates a Brother
“It is easy to hate and difficult to love.”
Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, was right. Hate is usually the first emotion among the living. A dog sees another dog and immediately they are at each other’s throats. Two kids exchange glances and there’s a fight. Adults watch the new guy in the office and plot to get rid of him.
Jacob’s family was racked by hate. The children of Leah belittled the sons of the concubines. Reuven, the eldest, was indecisive and wielded no authority. And everyone hated Joseph. He was the son of the late Rachel, Jacob’s chosen. Joseph was the favorite of Jacob, who took him everywhere. Father even made a coat of many colors for his son. That sparked bitter words among Jacob’s children.
“And his brothers saw that their father loved him of all the brothers. And they hated him and could not speak to him in peace.”
Then came the clincher: Joseph related his dreams to the family. In one dream, his sheaf rises from the ground and the sheaves of the brothers bow down. In another dream, the sun, moon and 11 stars kneel to Joseph.
“And his brothers said to him, ‘Will you rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his dreams and words.”
Joseph was only 17 years old, far younger than his brothers. But the commentators say the teenager’s dreams were seen as prophetic, including by Jacob. And so the brothers plotted to kill him.
The Talmud stresses that the hate was not without cause. Joseph appeared vain, patting his curls, highlighting his eyes and strutting rather than walking. He incurred the wrath of his brothers by telling Jacob of their alleged misdeeds. Jacob made a major mistake in showing his favoritism. “Never instill jealousy among the sons,” the sages say in the Tractate Shabbat, “because of an additional five silver coins that Jacob spent on Joseph the brothers became jealous and things became worse until our forefathers went down to Egypt.”
If this was the only lesson of the Torah, the entire story would have been worthwhile. But there’s more. For all his brashness, Joseph was not silly. His insistence on telling his father and brothers his dreams marked an urgent message to the family: The status quo can no longer be maintained. There will be a major change and our family will go into exile, where they must transform into a nation. This is our most important task and we must prepare for it.
Joseph’s message was rejected by everybody. Jacob had finally returned home and wanted no more than to live in peace. Joseph’s brothers had fought numerous wars and controlled much of the Land of Canaan. They no longer wanted to be with their father, rather preferred the vacation getaway of Shchem, where they could eat, drink and be merry.
In contrast, Joseph understood that the family would soon be uprooted. G-d’s plan was that Abraham’s children would live in a foreign land and become slaves for 400 years. And then, G-d would take them out of slavery, destroy their oppressors and make the Jews into a great nation. The period of exile was about to begin. To survive, the family would have to unite to maintain their unique heritage. The hedonism of the brothers was at odds with the urgent task of building a nation. They would have to take responsibility, ensure food and protection and foster a devoted leadership. That also meant that Jacob would have to become active again despite the resistance of his adult children.
There are precious few who understand the urgency of their times. One of them was Avraham Issac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Palestine who died in 1935 just shy of 70. Rabbi Kook was a visionary who understood that the return of the Jewish people to Zion marked a historic opportunity. The Jewish community in the Land of Israel could serve as the beacon of Torah to the Diaspora. Or, the community could embrace a shallow and false nationalism that would merely maintain ghetto rule.
The rabbi seemed to encounter opposition from everybody. Mapai found his outreach to the secular kibbutzim and moshavim a threat to party rule. The religious Mizrahi did not want the rabbi to upset its position in the secular Zionist movement. Agudat Yisrael was alarmed by the rabbi’s message that Jews, regardless of their level of observance, could join in building the land. When he was 16 years old, Menachem Porush, later a leader of Agudah, burned an effigy of Kook.
In 1904, the rabbi addressed a memorial for Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Rabbi Kook spoke of Herzl’s concern for Jews and his quest for a haven. But he told the gathering in Jerusalem that the Zionist movement was fundamentally flawed in its rejection of the Torah. What was required was the return to G-d and his commandments, “and a consensus that the foundation of all must be the power of Torah. If the will to improve materially will rest on Torah, then G-d will shine His face upon us and crown our every deed with success. At first, the salvation will be gradual, as our holy rabbis remarked upon witnessing dawn over the Arbel Valley, but later it will gain momentum, appearing as a great and wondrous light, as in the days of our exodus from Egypt.”
Rabbi Kook was proven right. The opportunity of the State of Israel has been squandered by the leadership’s rejection of the Torah as well as baseless hatred. The religious Zionist movement has been shattered by crass materialism and opportunism that resulted in a hemorrhage of its young people.
“There could be a free man with the spirit of the slave, and there could be a slave with a spirit full of freedom. Whoever is faithful to himself – he is a free man. And whoever fills his life only with what is good and beautiful in the eyes of others – he is a slave.”
Joseph was also right. G-d made him the scout that led Jacob’s family to Egypt, where they became a nation. That nation kept its identity and faith in G-d through decades of abject slavery and oppression. And Joseph led his people for 80 years, the longest in Jewish history.
Eventually, Joseph’s half-brother, Judah, took over and produced the kings of Israel. At the end of days, there will be a partnership between the progeny of Joseph, who will fight for his people, and Judah, who will usher the Messiah. That is the unity we need to make us free.