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Avoiding I Told You So

4 minute read
Straightforward

The book of Genesis concludes with Yosef’s story.

It’s worth noting that roughly a quarter of the book revolves around Yosef as the central character, making him its most prominent protagonist by a distance.

As an adolescent, Yosef was his own worst enemy, sharing vivid dreams with brothers already jealous of his special relationship with their father. Determining that this arrogant dreamer was unworthy of their great ancestral legacy and posed a threat to its future, the brothers disposed of him, selling him into ignominious slavery.

But he could not be stopped. Undeterred, he climbed his way out the depths of slavery and false imprisonment without faltering until he reached the height of Egyptian aristocracy.

The story reaches its climax with Yosef positioned as the fully naturalized Egyptian ruler of all, Tzafnas Paneach. In a stunning reversal, his brothers unwittingly made their way to him:

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁבֹּר בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּאִים כִּי־הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל־הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל־עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹכֶל. וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ  – The sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations, for the famine extended to the land of Canaan. Now Yosef ruled the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. Yosef’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (42:5-8)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this moment, quite arguably the moment the entire book of Genesis turns on.

In every story up to this point, siblings could not get past their differences, and families would fracture and splinter off in separate ways. But this time, something different happens, and it’s because Yosef did something different.

We can be confident that Yosef remembered his childhood dream that his siblings would one day bow before him; sharing this vision was the very thing that had torn him from his family and landed him in his current position!

Then this moment happens – they bow and humbly beg for his benevolence and assistance. Despite their best efforts, his dream has come true, and this moment utterly vindicates him. The upstart dreamer had, in fact, been a full-fledged prophet all along!

We can’t begin to imagine all the years of pain and hurt, the difficulties and torment he experienced, first at home, then through abduction and slavery, then prison and later in politics, in utter isolation.

But this moment conclusively proves that however childish or immature he had been, they were completely and utterly wrong.

If he were to reveal his true identity now – the moment his brothers are on the floor beneath him, entirely at his mercy – can we begin to imagine the sense of power and vindication those words might be laden with? How tantalizingly sweet would those words taste rolling off our tongue?

Yet, presented with the ultimate I-told-you-so opportunity, Yosef turned away from that path and towards the road to reconciliation, paving the way for the family to let go of past differences successfully.

The Kedushas Levi highlights how gracious and magnanimous it was for Yosef to avoid rubbing in this complete and total vindication. He recognized exactly who they were, remembered precisely what they had done, and only troubled himself to make sure that in their lowest moment, they would not recognize him – וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת.

Yosef refused to kick them when they were down, and would ultimately offer a positive spin on the entire story, that God had ordained the whole thing to position him to save them from their predicament – שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָיִם / לֹא־אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים / כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.

All grown-up now, Yosef is able to understand that his dreams were not about him; he was able to recognize that he was a tool. There was no glory to be had in his power, wealth, and success, or even his prophetic ability, except to the extent he could use it to help others and heal the rift in his family he had contributed to. No one had understood his childhood visions; they weren’t going to bow because he was better than them but because he was going to save them all. From this point on through the end of the story, he repeatedly makes sure to feed and care for his brothers and their families.

In this moment, this hero of heroes acted from his heart instead of his pain. He truly was better than the brothers who had once tried to break him; rather than make them bitter too, he healed them all.

Most families are at odds a little too often, that is, assuming they’re even on speaking terms! Inevitably, there are quite a few I-told-you-so moments. It’s a rehash of the cycle of most of the book of Genesis, a tale as old as time, and perhaps even the natural course of life. But just because it’s natural, that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. It’s not inevitable.

We should remember that our greats weren’t robotic machines. They hurt each other deeply and caused their family immense and undeserved pain. Yet when things came back around, although they had not forgotten, they faced those moments with compassion and humility, invoking the power to defuse decades of hurt.

The legacy of these stories is that humans have the ability to choose to avert cycles of hurt, the power to fill that void with healing. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you.

Break the cycle.

Living with Differences

3 minute read
Straightforward

The formative stories in the book of Genesis are powerful and moving.

They tell us where we come from, what our heroes and role models looked like, and how they got there. We recognize the individual protagonists’ greatness when we read these stories, but the stories also include plenty of failings.

In the stories of Yakov’s children, there is constant tension, a sibling rivalry. Yet Yakov’s children are the first of the Jewish People; the first generation to be entirely worthy of inheriting the covenant of Avraham collectively – מטתו שלימה / שבטי י-ה.

While the Torah’s terse stories obviously cannot capture who these great people truly were in three dimensions, we shouldn’t ignore that the Torah deliberately frames the stories a particular way, characterizing and highlighting specific actions and people. We should sit up and notice, wondering what we are supposed to learn from the parts that won’t quite fit with our picture of greatness.

Each generation of our ancestral prototypes added something – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. What are we supposed to make of the apparent disputes and strife between Yosef and his brothers?

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that one lesson is how perilously close people came to killing one of their own in Yosef, how their inability to tolerate Yosef nearly ruined them, with a straight line from their disagreements to centuries of enslavement in Egypt.

While we can’t get to some ultimate historical truth of the matter, the Torah’s characterization is unequivocal. As much as we believe that there is a right and wrong approach to life and that we must fight for what we believe in, we must still love and tolerate people we disagree with. If, in our pursuit of truth and justice, we end up dividing the family, hating and alienating others, we have gotten lost along the way.

The Sfas Emes suggests that Yosef’s criticisms stemmed from the fact that he had different, which is to say, higher standards than his brothers. Being the closest to his father, he was the best placed to claim authority from his father’s teachings; and being so highly attuned, he was sensitive to his brother’s nuanced missteps, so while Yosef’s brothers could not dispute his greatness, they determined that his standards were destructive.

It’s not so hard to see why. Although they were the heirs of Avraham’s covenant, it was intolerable to have someone so demanding and oversensitive policing them day and night. In their estimation, it was untenable for a viable Jewish future.

The brothers would eventually see that Yosef wasn’t a threat, that he had been on the right track all along, just not the right one for them. But they would only realize too late, after the family had already suffered greatly from the fallout, and would be mired in Egypt for centuries as a result.

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that the lesson for us is to learn to live with high standards in the place where theory and practice meet.

Daily, we see the razor-sharp edge of absolute truth clashing with the realpolitik of practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. It’s impossible to measure and quantify values or where to draw the line; it’s deeply personal and subjective to specific circumstances, continually hinging on so many practicalities.

Yosef and Yehuda never clash about what’s true, or what matters. They agree entirely about the value of Avraham’s legacy, but they could not agree on what that might look like. One of the story’s lessons is the error of confusing theory with practice; with no difference in values, we can and should tolerate differences in practice.

Two of the most fundamental principles of the Torah and life are loving your neighbor and the image of God, both of which speak to the dignity of others – ואהבת לרעך כמוך / צלם אלוקים. Reserving love and compassion for people who are just like you is not the Torah’s greatest principle – that would demand literally nothing of us. We must tolerate the existence of those who are not just like us, which is incredibly hard.

Like Yosef, we mustn’t be afraid of high standards. But if we aren’t quite ready to live that way, we should at the very least tolerate others who do have high standards. Society has to tolerate the person who wants things to be better just as equally it has to tolerate the person who can’t quite live up to that just yet.

Because true to life, you can’t teach someone anything you’ve chased them away.

How The Tables Turn

2 minute read
Straightforward

After a turbulent relationship with his siblings that culminated in his abduction and exile, Yosef climbed his way from the gutter to Egyptian aristocracy.

Years later, his brothers came to Egypt to avoid a famine back home, and Yosef entrapped them in a drawn-out ruse.

Instead of identifying himself, he role-played as a meticulous bureaucrat. Noticing that Binyamin was absent, he apprehended and jailed Shimon until they returned with Binyamin, and then had his personal effects planted on Binyamin to make him look like a thief.

The story is a classic, albeit protracted, and theatrical. Why did Yosef act so strangely?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch perceptively notes that Yosef’s goal must have always been to bring his family back together because if he’d wanted to forget his family, then when his brothers came to Egypt, he could have just let them be. They’d return to Israel none the wiser!

But to reunite the family, Yosef had several major obstacles to overcome. If he ever went home or wrote back to reforge the connection, it would not bring the family together; it would irreparably tear it apart. By exposing to Yakov the murderous cover-up and human trafficking perpetrated by his brothers, Yakov might regain a long lost son, but he’d undoubtedly lose the rest.

The only way to make it right would be for things to be different. The brothers would need to see that Yosef had changed, and Yosef would need to know that they had changed, and he has cause for concern.

Where was Binyamin? Had the same thing happened to Rachel’s last son?

Judah, who had once instigated Yosef’s abduction, would now take responsibility and endanger himself to protect Binyamin. Coupled with their admission of guilt and repentance – מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי מַה־נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק / אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל־אָחִינוּ – they had accomplished something remarkable – our very first encounter with teshuva in Jewish history.

Seeing how Yehuda courageously took responsibility for his family and stood up to take the blame, Yosef knew that they were not the reckless and impulsive young men they had been all those years ago. Seeing that they had grown, he revealed himself to them.

Once, they had feared Yosef’s ambition, believing he wanted them to serve him. Now Yosef had power over them; he could show that he didn’t want to take anything from them; he wanted to help them!

With all the theatrics, the brothers could learn more about each other than they ever could have with words, and it was the one way to tease out the insights that could bring their family together once more.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the stories of Bereishis are about families that could not learn to live together – it is one acrimonious falling out after another. But now there is a new paradigm – teshuva and forgiveness. Forgiveness brings Yakov’s fragmented family back together and forms the foundation of the Jewish people.

It’s Not About Who You Are; But What You Do

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah speaks in human language, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools.

Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some say that our tradition’s stories are not about ordinary people like us; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different from us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different from us, how can their stories be relevant guidance for our lives?

As R’ Shlomo Farhi observes, while the Torah’s terse stories obviously do not capture the character of these great people in three dimensions, we also cannot ignore the Torah’s deliberate characterization and presentation of these stories, emphasizing and highlighting specific actions and people frame their particular way. We should sit up and notice, wondering what we are supposed to learn from the parts that don’t quite align with our picture of greatness.

When famine struck Avraham’s new home in Israel, he decided that his family would have better food security in Egypt’s fertile land, and they left Israel. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts, the way it worked out was that he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after Pharaoh took her.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not counting on God’s promises and that by abandoning Israel, he directly jeopardized those promises and endangered his family.

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are often the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult and rarely black and white. While the law is made of words, those words have to be lived out, and only a story transmits the turmoil and weight of how those words and values interface with real life.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah’s enduring hold is that our heroes are not gods or demigods; they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human – and humans make mistakes.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this kind of discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage. Our ancestors are prototypes of what the ideal human acts like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; excellent humans are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; they wouldn’t be relevant if they weren’t materially like us. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham was not born holy and perfect, nor under extraordinary or supernatural circumstances. Avraham did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a religious advantage. Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He is great because of the things he did, not because he was born that way.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; because it’s ok to be human.

Some people suggest that focusing on our hero’s misdeeds is disrespectful, but perhaps they have it backward. Their humanity does not undermine our respect for them; it is the very basis of our respect and veneration!

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people also make mistakes.

Adam eats the fruit; Noach doesn’t save a single person; Avraham compromises Sarah; Yitzchak favors Esau; Yakov tricks his father; Yosef is vain, and his brothers engage in human trafficking. The generation that comes out of Egypt is doomed to die in the wilderness. Moshe doesn’t get to the Promised Land. The Promised Land doesn’t result in the Final Redemption. Failure is a core theme of almost every story in the Torah!

But crucially, here we are 3000 years later, learning those stories, still trying. Perfection is ever-elusive, and there is no finish line. The Torah’s stories guide our way through the ages because they matter to us. They teach us that humans can fail, but if perfection is out of reach, greatness is not.

What makes us great isn’t what we are; it’s what we do.

Mind Tricks

2 minute read
Straightforward

Waiting out famine in Canaan, Yakov sent his sons to Egypt to obtain provisions, but they were arrested and imprisoned by their long-lost and unrecognizable brother Yosef.

Held in prison, they speculated how they’d wound up in such a precarious situation:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת – The brothers lamented to each other, “We are guilty! For what we did to our brother… We saw his suffering! He pleaded with us, and we ignored him. We have brought this on ourselves!” (42:21)

But when we review the entire episode as it unfolded, there is no record of any conversation to that effect. The story simply narrates what they did to him, with no record of Yosef’s cries or pleas, and no mention of ignoring his suffering.

What conversation are they talking about?

R’ Shlomo Freifeld suggests a frightening resolution.

There are two co-equal aspects to vision. There is a physical aspect, governed by our eyes; but there is also a mental aspect, governed by our mind. A deficiency in the physical aspect will result in actual blindness, but lacking the mental aspect will also result in blindness, if only in the figurative sense; and yet the result is the same.

You will not perceive.

And that’s what the brothers realize years later in a miserable jail cell.

We can have no doubt that any observer of this traumatic episode would witness Yosef crying and begging them to stop their drastic and wicked course of action.

In their eyes, Yosef was trouble, and they had to get rid of him; it was settled in their minds. They were determined and decisive that he was a pretender to be removed; powerful emotions had dulled their sensitivity. Caught up in the heat of the moment, he hadn’t made a sound in their eyes, and so the Torah records the story as the reality they experienced.

Only in hindsight, sitting in jail years later, could they take stock of the terrible ordeal as it truly unfolded; they realized they had been blind to the cries of their brother.

Your eyes won’t help when your mind is blind.