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A Word of Torah - Parashat Vayeshev

12/07/2023 12:53:05 PM


Bruce Alpert

Our Torah portion begins the story of Joseph.  At the outset, we are told that Joseph is sent out to watch his brothers as they are shepherding the family cattle:

וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־דִּבָּתָ֥ם רָעָ֖ה אֶל־אֲבִיהֶֽם
Joseph brought bad reports to his father.

We also learn that Jacob favored Joseph and loved him more than his other sons.  Then we learn of Joseph’s dreams where he imagines his entire family - including his mother and father - bowing down to him.  About that latter dream we are told

וַיְקַנְאוּ־ב֖וֹ אֶחָ֑יו וְאָבִ֖יו שָׁמַ֥ר אֶת־הַדָּבָֽר:
His brothers were jealous of him, and his father guarded the matter.

How does Jacob guard the matter?  He immediately sends Joseph out again to report on his brothers’ activities.  Famously, the brothers respond to their little spy by throwing him in a pit from which he is taken by a group of traveling Midianites who sell him to the Ishmaelites who sell him to the Egyptians.  And thus begins Israel's four hundred year descent into slavery.

We might well ask, is this what Jacob meant by guarding the matter?  He knew how his other sons felt about Joseph.  He knew that Joseph’s bad reports on their behavior were a source of hatred.  He had to have known that sending him far from home to report on them was courting disaster.  And yet he does it anyway.

One of the things that is so compelling about the book of Genesis is that the stories it tells are so realistic.  This is a story of favoritism and jealousy and the disaster these uncontrolled emotions will bring about.  But it is also a story of our own insecurities - of how we put the people and the things we prize the most in danger in order to test their love for us.  How can Jacob be so cavalier with Joseph that he would send him off alone to his older brothers charging him to do precisely the thing for which his brothers hate him?  And how could the brothers allow their own jealousy to control them up to the point that they endanger the lives of both their brother and father?

Ultimately the resolution of this drama comes when Judah - recognizing the shear destruction all this hatred and jealousy has brought - is willing to put the needs of others ahead of his own hurts and disappointments.  But by that time, so much damage has already been done.

We are living through remarkably difficult times.  As a Jew, I am watching intelligent, thoughtful people take the side of torturers, rapists and murderers against a people and a country whose values should be their own.  What favoritism, what jealousy provokes them to act in such a way?  What cavalier attitude permits them to court the destruction of that which they should be guarding?  As the prophet Hosea says, 

כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ יִזְרָ֖עוּ וְסוּפָ֣תָה יִקְצֹ֑רוּ
For the wind they will sow, and the whirlwind they will reap.

May the days quickly come when our insecurities and our petty jealousies do not lead us down dark and dangerous ways.  Then, perhaps, we will truly learn to guard that which is most precious to us; protecting it not just for ourselves, but from those most dangerous parts of ourselves.

Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784