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.