The formative stories in the book of Genesis are powerful and moving, and they tell us where we come from and what our heroes and role models looked like, and how they got there. When we read the stories, we recognize the individual protagonists’ greatness, but the stories also include plenty of failings in every generation.
In the stories of Yakov’s children, there is constant tension, a sibling rivalry for all intents and purposes. Yet Yakov’s children are the first of the Jewish People, the שבטי י-ה; the first generation to be entirely worthy of inheriting the covenant of Avraham collectively – מטתו שלימה. While the Torah’s terse stories cannot convey to us or capture who these great people truly were, we shouldn’t pretend that the Torah doesn’t deliberately frame the stories a particular way, characterizing and highlighting certain actions and people. We should sit up and notice and wonder what we are supposed to learn from the parts that don’t seem to fit with the picture of our greats.
Each generation of our ancestral prototypes added something – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. What are we supposed to learn from the obvious disputes and strife between Yosef and his brothers?
R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that the story’s lesson is how close the brothers came to very nearly killing one of their own in Yosef. Their inability to tolerate Yosef tore the family apart, with a straight line from their disagreements to two centuries of enslavement in Egypt.
While we can’t get to the final historical truth of the matter, the characterization is unequivocal. As much as we believe that there is a right and wrong approach to life and that we fight for what we believe in, we must love the 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.
All the same, what was it they were fighting about?
The Sfas Emes suggests that Yosef’s criticisms stemmed from the fact that he had different, that is, 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 foibles. Yosef’s brothers could not dispute Yosef’s greatness but determined that his standards were destructive.
It’s not so hard to see why. They knew they were the heirs of Avraham’s covenant, but it would be intolerable to have someone so demanding and sensitive policing you day and night. It was untenable to them and completely nonconducive to a viable Jewish future.
The brothers would come to see that Yosef wasn’t a threat, that he had been on the right track all along – just not the right track for them. They came to that realization years too late, and the family was mired in Egypt for centuries as a result.
R’ Yitzchak Berkovits highlights that the lesson for us is learning to live with such high standards, where theory and practice meet.
In our daily grind, we readily see the constant tension between the razor-sharp edge of absolute truth classing with the realpolitik of practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. It’s impossible to measure and quantify our values, and where we draw the line, it’s deeply personal and subjective to specific circumstances – it hinges on so many practicalities.
One of the lessons that jump out of the story is confusing theory and practice. Yosef and Yehuda never clash about what’s true, or what matters. They know how valuable Avraham’s legacy is, but they could not agree on what it was supposed to look like. And while it’s a fine line to tread, it’s clear that we should tolerate difference in practice, but not a difference in values.
Like Yosef, we mustn’t be afraid of having 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. Our society has to tolerate the person who wants us to be better, just as equally it has to tolerate the person who can’t quite live up to that just yet.
Two of the most fundamental principles of the Torah and life are loving your neighbor and the image of God – ואהבת לרעך כמוך / צלם אלוקים, which both speak to the dignity of others. If we only reserve love and compassion for those just like us and think we are upholding the Torah’s greatest principles, we should reorient ourselves for a moment because these principles demand nothing of us. Unless we can tolerate the existence of people who are not like us, we ignore our responsibility to share respect and empathy with the world.
True to life, we know you can’t teach someone anything when you’ve chased them away.