Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
There is not a soap opera on the planet that could touch the stories of VaYeshev. The parasha opens when Joseph is only seventeen years old. Spoiled by his father, Joseph brings 'evil report' about his brothers back to Jacob and then shares prophetic dreams about how his entire family will one-day bow to him. His brothers are so upset by Joseph's behavior, that they are filled not only with jealousy, but with actual hatred. They strip him of his fancy coat, the symbol of their father’s love and leave him in an empty pit – without any water. Slavers come by and find him (presumably he was screaming for help) and sell him as a slave in Egypt. When the brothers eventually return and find the pit empty, they try to cover their tracks by bring Joseph’s (fake) bloodied coat back to Jacob as proof that Joseph was killed by wild animals.
Far too often, when faced with situations like this, we fall back on the language of victimization and blame. Who is the victim here? And who is to blame?
One the one hand, Joseph is the victim, After all, his own brothers throw him into a pit and abandon him. For all he knows, his brothers could have sent the slavers to capture him. According to this frame, the blame belongs to the brothers. While they were understandably angry with Joseph, they acted out not only with words but with harsh deeds (as opposed to Joseph who only used words). Surely that is worse than anything Joseph did.
On the other hand, Joseph's brothers are the victims. They have been mistreated not only by Joseph, but also by their father Jacob who clearly loves Joseph more than them. It is wrong and unfair for them to be treated in this way, and although the damage may not be physical, they are suffering nevertheless. According to this frame, Jacob and Joseph are to blame for emotionally abusing the brothers. Their situation was unbearable, and they had to act to save themselves from their victimhood. Surely, the emotional pain inflicted by one’s own family is far worse than temporarily being thrown into a pit.
Who do you think the victims are? Joseph? His brothers? All of them? None of them?
We have the benefit of distance, which allows us to see that everyone contributed to the problem. This whole dynamic is the intensification of a cycle of family dysfunction that began with Abraham and Sarah. Breaking the cycle will not be easy, and the rest of the portion describes the beginnings of what will eventually allow them to heal. Joseph and his brothers independently go through painful periods of maturation, where they learn to take responsibility for their actions rather than merely see themselves as victims. When they are finally reunited in Egypt (in a later portion), they manage to live together in ways none of them could have imagined as kids. Instead of each blaming the other for the wrongs that had been done, they found the maturity to create a life together of shalom bayit (peace in the house).
With Thanksgiving behind us, and the Festival of Lights before us, we can use this time to learn from our family history. Let’s ask ourselves how we can cultivate greater maturity in our relationships, so that we can bring not only light, but more shalom bayit into our own homes.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras