Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman | Rabbi Emerita at Union Temple of Brooklyn, New York, US
As an “only child,” I always have been particularly fascinated by the sibling relationships throughout the Book of Genesis. I don’t know about all other “only children.” But in my own fantasizing about what it would have been like to have had a brother or sister, or perhaps both, my relationships with them have always been idyllic. We would have loved each other without reservation, and would have been there for each other through thick and thin. But of course, it’s easy to enjoy such idyllic relationships when they exist only in one’s own fantasies! In fact, I do know many people whose relationships with their siblings are quite wonderful. On the other hand, some of my friends, and yes, family members as well, are locked in conflict with their siblings that more closely resemble the various generations of siblings within the narratives of Genesis. From the very first siblings, Cain and Abel, the dynamics of rivalry, jealousy, anger, pain and separation are established, and they continue throughout the entire book through to our parashah this week, as we close out the narratives of Genesis: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers. Perhaps we might read into these recurring patterns the possibility that this is precisely what they learned from the previous generations; dysfunction breeds dysfunction. I can say from a purely personal point of view that it is tremendously painful for me to watch people I love whose sibling relationships are, shall we say, less than idyllic. On the one hand, I wish that they could find a better way. On the other, I know that this is often easier said than done, especially from the vantage point of an onlooker.
But fantasy also can take on a more threatening tone. One of the most frightening moments I ever have seen on the big screen was the moment in “Godfather Part 2” when Michael Corleone, now the head of the Corleone crime family, orders the execution of his own brother Fredo, after the death of their mother. Of course, not long before, Michael became aware of the fact that Fredo was an unwitting dupe in what ultimately became an attempted “hit” upon Michael himself. So, I suppose that within the code of honor of the mob, so to speak, Michael’s order was both understandable, and in fact, to be expected. But this wasn’t just any hit. This was his older brother!
As the Genesis narrative draws to a close, we witness a scenario that in certain ways bears striking similarity to the one portrayed in “Godfather.” But our Torah shows us a different way. Joseph shows us the way. After receiving the tunic of leadership from his father, he was thrown into a pit by his brothers in their jealous rage. Then they sold him to the Midianites as a slave. Once in Egypt, he refused to give in to the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, but was thrown into prison anyway. But he was “discovered” as a prescient interpreter of dreams, and rose to power within the Egyptian court, becoming second only to the Pharaoh himself. And now we look on, as Joseph’s defining moment is upon him. Remember that unlike Fredo, Joseph’s brothers were not unwitting dupes. They actually intended to cause him harm! But now, after 20 years of separation, Joseph has tested his brothers, and they have proven themselves. Now their father Jacob has died. “I am Joseph,” he says. “Come closer toward me. I am Joseph, your brother… do not be afraid.”
As an American, I look at my country and am heartbroken by what I see. Republicans and Democrats; progressives and conservatives; those who were born in America and those who came here from elsewhere in the world; racial and economic divisions; anti-Semitism and White Nationalism, both on the rise. Our motto as a nation is E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. But at this time, that ideal seems more elusive to us with each new day.
As fellow citizens of the world, we look at a picture that is equally troubling. Our beloved Israel cannot seem to form a government. International treaties of trade and mutual defense have been abrogated, one after the other, after the other. Anti-Semitism and the climate crisis are steadily worsening. And as you know, the list goes on.
But on this Shabbat Vayechi, it behooves us to remember the ultimate theme of our parashah, as the Book of Genesis draws to a close. Even after internal conflict, and in the shadow of threatening externals, reconciliation and resolution are possible. As Jews, and as global citizens, we know that to be true. We have achieved it before, and we can achieve it again. All of us have a stake in what happens in the calendar year ahead. It is incumbent upon us to figure out a way to talk and listen to each other; to draw each other closer, as Joseph drew his brothers back toward him. If we allow conflict and enmity to take over, we will drive each other further away, and lose the chance to create better future together. We have the capacity to work together to develop ideas, in the mutual aspiration of increased understanding and a better way to live. This is our aspiration not only as Jews, but as sisters and brothers of the same human family. The hope of reconciliation need not remain in our fantasies; we can realize them together. “I am Joseph. Come closer toward me. I am Joseph… your brother. Do not be afraid….”
And so as we close the book on the Genesis narratives, at least until next year, may we do so with the affirmation with which we close every book of our Torah: Hazak, hazak, venithazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we will strengthen each other.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).