Hooray! It’s that time of year when we gather as family, eat latkes, play dreidel, and have FUN together. ‘Can’t wait…’ you say, rolling your eyes? You and 79 percent of people out there who dread their annual family celebrations. Why do we have yet again to spend time with people that we have absolutely nothing in common with, other than similar DNA?
In Parshat Miketz, famine strikes the land of Canaan, and Jacob sends ten of his sons to Egypt to buy food. However, Yosef, their long-lost brother, who they sold into slavery, is now the viceroy of Egypt and in charge of distribution. Sure enough, “Recalling the dreams he had dreamed to them, Yosef said to them: You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness” (Genesis 42:9). He then proceeds to mentally torment them and put them through a terrible ordeal, testing the very limits of the family’s wholesomeness.
How could Yosef Hatzadik (the righteous man) treat his own flesh and blood so poorly? How could he wreak revenge? And if he truly sought revenge, why did he not simply take them all hostage and enslave them for the rest of their lives? Or perhaps even torture and execute them?
Ramban explains that Yosef saw the dreams of his youth – wherein the sheaves of wheat and the stars, the sun and the moon bowed down to him – being played out before his eyes. Seeing the prophecy unfold, he felt compelled to bring the dreams to complete fruition. In a similar fashion, Rashi notes that Yosef was watching his dreams “about them” being fulfilled.
But, wait a second. Why does Rashi present the meaning of the text as ‘about them,’ as opposed to the plain translation ‘to them’? When it comes to understanding the basic meaning of the text, for the past millennium, Rashi has been everyone’s ‘go-to commentator.’ But prior to his time, other commentaries competed for popularity. The two major translations were Onkelos and T”Y (referred to by some as Targum Yonasan, and by others as Targum Yerushalmi). Most of the time, Rashi adopts Onkelos’ approach; occasionally, however, he prefers T”Y. This verse, he chooses T”Y’s translation, ‘about them,’ instead of Onkelos’ literal translation ‘to them.’ But what’s the difference between about and to and how can one dream to someone?
Let’s return to our question of why Yosef would deliberately torment his brothers and keep them in suspense in regard to his true identity. The Moshav Zekeinim explains that Yosef assumed that his brothers still despised him. Fearing they wouldn’t grant him contact with his father, he didn’t tell them who he was. So at what point did he know that they didn’t continue to harbour their hatred for him? In order for him to find out he had to play out the events and begin questioning them about their motives and organise the events culminating in their youngest brother, Binyamin, being held captive by Yosef. Their attitude towards Rachel’s other son would clarify whether or not they had done teshuvah and loved all their siblings equally wholeheartedly – including himself.
Fast forward to the opening of next week’s parsha (Gen. 44:18-34) and we have a showdown between Yosef and Yehuda over Binyamin’s future. Yehuda refuses to leave to Canaan without his youngest brother. Why? Because, says Yehuda, ‘I couldn’t do that to my father. It would kill him. I can’t return empty-handed.’
Is that what Yosef wanted to hear? No, he longed to hear how much they loved Binyamin. How they could never forsake their flesh and blood. He knows how much he has missed his brothers. And he yearns to hear how much they love him and miss him. And that’s what the text is teaching us here: Yosef was dreaming to his brothers, hoping that they loved him as much as he loved them. He was trying to dream for them. Indeed, we see at the end of the story when he does eventually reveal himself, the Torah states, “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, and after that, they spoke with him” (Gen. 45:15). He embraces and kisses them and what is their response? They talked to him. Is that a normal reaction to someone who hugs you? How does one return an embrace? Sadly, the deep, brotherly love that Yosef had dreamed of for all those years never materialised. Sure, they were physically reunited, but until the very end, the relationship remained strained. Where do we see this tension? After Yaakov, their father, dies, they assume it’s game-over for their relationship and desperately appeal to Yosef for mercy (Gen. 50:15).
Yosef had certain expectations from his relationship with his brothers. Instead of expressing what they were, he was hoping, he was dreaming to them thinking that perhaps they would know how he truly felt. But sibling relationships are no different to spousal relationships. If things aren’t going well with your wife, your husband, you work on improving things. You learn to express what you want. You learn how to communicate when something is not quite right. But for sibling relationships we just assume that everyone knows how to act and just get on with it. But why should that be so? What we learn from Yosef is that sibling relationships are no different. If you want a healthy long-term, exciting, fresh and alive relationship with your sister or brother, you need to work on it making that happen. You need to tell them what you expect, how you feel and how they can help make the relationship better. You can’t just go on hoping and dreaming that everything will be alright. You need to tell them that it means a lot when they call or when they come for a simcha.
And maybe that’s what Yosef’s brothers were trying to do as he showered them with kisses. How does the Torah say they reacted? By talking to him. Hugs and kisses demonstrate love, but they can be superficial expressions. Deep conversations develop true relationships. After everything they’d been through together – and ultimately, apart – they realised that a new relationship would take a lot of conversing, discussing, and heart-to-heart talking.
If you want to enjoy the holiday season with your siblings, you can’t just expect to show up on the day. Every good relationship requires investment. Just like having a date night with your spouse is paramount, if you want to maintain and grow the relationship with your sibling, make time to take them on a date. Nurture the relationship. When you get that invitation to go out with your sibling, jump at it and give the relationship what it truly deserves. It’s time to find out a little more about the individual who happens to share the same DNA!