Rebuilding Family Relationships

It is the emotional highlight of the whole Joseph saga. After having sold Joseph into slavery and sending him to Egypt, the brothers lied to their father that Joseph had been eaten by a beast and was apparently dead. Jacob's mourning was intense and unending. The years went past and Joseph had no knowledge of his father, and vice versa.

Many question why Joseph never sent a letter. Some theorize that Joseph suspected his father may have known about the plot. Perhaps he refrained so as not to have to deal with his brothers again before they repented and begged forgiveness. That would explain why he strung them along after they came to buy food in Egypt and did not reveal his identity immediately.

Either way, a son loves his father and a father loves his son. At the moment when Jacob arrived at Joseph's palace, Joseph ran out to greet him. They embraced, a story which always brings a lump to my throat. However, the Torah says that only Joseph cried, not Jacob. One would expect some emotional reaction! What was Jacob doing?

Incredibly, he was reciting the Shema prayer, "Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."

At that moment? Couldn't it wait a few seconds? Please cry tears of joy, Jacob! What on Earth was he doing?

It is intriguing to investigate, as the police do during a corruption probe, "Who knew what and when?" Did Jacob ever find out just HOW Joseph got to Egypt? Did the brothers keep the cover up till the end? I wonder if all the brothers knew. What about Benjamin, Joseph's younger brother? He certainly would not have approved of the brothers sale of Joseph.

And what about Reuben? He was absent when they sold Joseph. In fact, he never wanted to harm Joseph. He urged the brothers to put Joseph in the pit so as to go back later and save him. When he did so, and found the pit empty, he was beside himself with guilt and fear. We don't see that the brothers ever told him. Indeed, later on, when they stood before Joseph to buy food, Reuben says, "I told you not to harm the boy (Joseph), and now his blood is being demanded." From this it seems that Reuben thought that Joseph was indeed dead. I'm betting he was never told either.

In fact, my main concern about the entire story and its aftermath is that there are too many tears, and no laughter. Yes, the tears make sense in that there was great trauma, and tragic things had been done. But still, there is no joy here, except in Jacob's heart. His "spirit lived". He's the only one. I am reminded of Romeo and Juliet, where, at the beginning, Romeo is enamored of a woman named Rosalind. He mopes and mopes from love. When he meets Juliet, all of a sudden he is the life of the party. Something was wrong with the love of Rosalind, and something was right with that of Juliet.

The place where the brothers AND Joseph went wrong was in never really talking and never really reconciling. They didn't talk. Reuben didn't know, wasn't told. I suppose Jacob and Benjamin also. And Joseph never really talked to his brothers either. Sure, he did comfort them and say that it turned out to be good that they sold him, but he never said to them "You hurt me, and even so I forgive you." He never expressly forgave them. He talked at them, not to them.

At the beginning of the story, the diagnosis was made, "They (the brothers) could not speak peacefully to him (Joseph)".

Why did they not talk? Perhaps because they were prey to the sin of Cain, to jealousy. They valued themselves in comparison to others, and could not brook that Joseph might rise above them. Now that it had happened, for them to apologize would be akin to admitting defeat. They couldn't get past it.

But Jacob reacted differently. Even if he wasn't told clearly how his son got to Egypt in the first place, he definitely understood that there was a lethal tension between the brothers, and that they did not communicate. He immediately sought the cure, and hoped it would bring back the joy of love. Shema, listen. God is teaching us that the primary rule of human relations is to listen. Cain did not listen, he struck. The brothers did not listen, they dismissed and hated.

When one values himself in God's eyes, and not in competition with others, he will listen to, care for, and rejoice with others. "The Lord is one." This is an obligation. We must be one, unified, as well. If we live to find favor in God's eyes, other humans are no longer competition but rather fellow travelers to whom we wish success.

Had the brothers, all of them, truly listened to each other, there would have been less tears, a true reconciliation, and smiles all around. Let's achieve that in our personal lives, it's much more fun.

The Shortcut to True Interpersonal Excellence

Joseph seems to repeat the judgment error of his father with regards to his brother, Benjamin. After he has identified himself to the brothers, he sends them back to the land of Canaan to bring Jacob to Egypt. As departing gifts, he gives them all jackets. Benjamin, however, gets five jackets! He also gets 300 coins, something that his brothers did not get. Joseph is clearly favoring Benjamin, despite the chance that, once again, the brothers will be jealous and perhaps try to harm him on their way back to the land of Canaan. Why do it? He saw what happened to himself when his father did, hasn't he learned?

He has absolutely learned! In fact, Joseph makes one nuanced change in his treatment of Benjamin and the brothers: he also gives the other brothers jackets. When his father made his famous coat of many colors, he was the only recipient of any coat whatsoever. The brothers saw this as favoritism for Joseph at their own expense. It became him or them, and when the opportunity arose, they chose them.

Joseph, however, sends a very different message. You are all of worth, you all deserve jackets. Benjamin has a special role to fulfill, so therefore he gets five jackets and 300 pieces of money. It's not to denigrate or diminish you, it simply to recognize him as having a special role for all of our benefit. This, it seems, was Joseph's message all the time. When he originally chose to tell the brothers his dreams, it was not to make them feel small, but to make them recognize that his father's treatment of him was for the general good.

This, however, gives us a powerful insight into Joseph's psychology. It has been pointed out that the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers remained incomplete until the end. Joseph never said to them, "You hurt me, and I need you to apologize." Instead, he reassured him that everything that they did was part of God's plan, "do not let this bother you." As a result, the brothers could not apologize, since Joseph was absolving them of any guilt. Why would he do that?

Within a family, there are two main types of relationships: 1. Brother to brother, and, 2. Parent to child. The first relationship involves a feeling of "us." The brothers are all in it together, they identify with each other. They may fight, they may share, but they all feel a connection of commonality. The second relationship is more of a "you" relationship. The parent is above, in a teacher-guidance counselor role. Parents rarely feel insulted by their children, because their love is immune to that. Siblings, on the other hand, take everything deeply personally.

I believe that Joseph, whether consciously or subconsciously, was terrified of the emotional minefield of brotherhood. It makes sense! After having been sold by your brothers to be a slave, you'd be traumatized too. We all have emotional coping mechanisms, and I believe that Joseph chose the parental relationship model as his. Indeed, Joseph uses the word itself when he tells the brothers that God "has made me like a father to Pharaoh."

Now things make sense. A parent will try to comfort a child, not seek comfort from the child. Joseph comforts his brothers, he tells them not to worry or feel guilty. He does not request comfort, or, in this case, apologies, from them. He puts himself above, not among, his brothers.

It is a coping mechanism, but it is not the ideal. In truth, perhaps Joseph would have been better to attempt to cross that emotional minefield, and discover the joy of true brotherhood on the other side. Instead, he stayed beside, or above, the field.

The shortcut to interpersonal excellence is this concept of brotherhood. In Israel, there are two magic words that can defuse almost any situation. When I have found myself in an argument with an Israeli, and feel the heat rising in me, that Israeli may use two words that change everything: "Ach sheli, my brother." I immediately feel that heat disappear, without even consciously processing it. There is something tremendously powerful about seeing oneself as together with someone else.

A parent is a wonderful thing, giving us comfort and guidance. Trying to be a parent, however, to our brothers, entails risks. First of all, parents can sometimes judge, and even punish, their children. We should never do this with our brothers. Second of all, there is a division between a parent and the child, which is necessary in that relationship, but toxic in a sibling relationship. Brothers must be together. If we use the phrase "my brother" more often, and view all others (except our parents!) as brothers, we will become real pros in interpersonal relationships

Bragging and the Evil Eye

The Talmud says that if a person fears the evil eye, they should wrap their thumbs in the palms of their hands and say, "I, so-and-so the child of so-and-so, am a descendent of the seed of Joseph. The evil eye has no power over me." There then follows a verse from the Bible implying that Joseph was above the evil eye.

This is just strange. First of all, most Jews today are not the descendents of Joseph at all, but rather from Judah or Levi. Why, then, does the Talmud encourage every individual to claim Joseph's lineage?

But what puzzles me more is the assumption that Joseph, above all others, surpasses the evil eye. When reading the stories, it seems that he suffered from it more than anyone else. He bragged about his dreams, he flaunted his colorful coat, and the evil eye came back to haunt him. His brothers sold him off the slavery in Egypt. His master's wife framed him and had him thrown in jail. And when he gave a favorable dream interpretation to the king's butler, the butler forgot all about him and he languished in jail for two more years. That sounds to me like the consequences of evil eye, which draws its power from jealousy.

So how can Joseph be the ultimate evil eye conqueror? One answer lies in the idea that a person most truly possesses a trait that they have earned, not inherited. Joseph suffering at the hands of the evil eye caused by jealous people was in the first part of his life. Once he arrived at Pharaoh's throne, there was no more evil eye. From then on, Joseph was truly ascendant. He had earned his trophy for defeating the evil eye.

That is a possible explanation, however it doesn't give me the information I need to know. How did Joseph eventually transcend the evil eye? And why does Joe Israeli have the right to claim that he is a descendent of Joseph, when that is genealogically questionable at best?

In order to achieve a more resounding answer, I would like to raise another question. Joseph was a smart fellow. When he had his childhood dreams of the corn stalks and stars bowing to him, he must have known that this would inflame his brothers. He must have known that they were already deeply jealous of him for being his father's favorite son, and that they resented the favoritism. His colored coat made his brothers see red.

So why did Joseph insist on telling his brothers these dreams? Was he trying to make them even more jealous? And why did Jacob make the classic parenting error of showing favoritism to one child over the others?

The answer sheds light on Joseph's entire worldview, and a glorious one it is! Let's start with Jacob. Most parents wish for their children to be more successful than they. Isaac, for example, placed great hope in Esau, because he felt that Esau was more capable of succeeding in the world than he had been. Isaac had been a fairly passive person, and so Esau, the hunter and man of the world, gave Isaac hope.

Jacob had suffered hatred. Esau wanted to kill him. Laban tricked him and took advantage of him. He struggled with angels and men. He did not feel loved at all. So along comes Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel. Joseph is a very good-looking boy. It is a known fact that people are positively inclined towards attractive people. Jacob wanted to enhance this, by giving his son a beautiful coat. He was doing everything he could to ensure that Joseph would succeed where he failed, being loved. Because, reasoned Jacob, if the world loves you, you can influence it. Joseph could be another Abraham, beloved, influential.

And Jacob was right. In the end, Joseph's grace won out and he was able to save an entire empire. He saved countless lives, and if some historical theories are to be believed, made monotheism a popular belief in pagan Egypt.

So why did he tell the dreams to his jealous brothers? According to the Or Hachaim commentary, he did it precisely so that they would not be jealous. Joseph understood why his father favored him. He was possessed with a sense of mission, and nothing will deter him from that mission. At the end of the episode, Joseph comforts his brothers with the assurance that their selling him into slavery merely fulfilled God's plan. They need feel no guilt. This is Joseph's life theme: everything that happens is God's plan. I put my personal feelings aside, and seek out God's mission in every life situation.

By telling them the dreams, Joseph was saying that their father's favoritism had God's sanction. God gave the dreams to prove it was part of the divine mission that he should be the powerful one. The brothers must rise above their personal jealousies and see the glory of God's tasks.

Joseph walked the walk. Everywhere he went, whether he was second to the king or just an anonymous prisoner, he devoted himself to helping all he could. During his years in prison, he served the other prisoners. This is where God put him, this is where he would serve. The only time that Joseph allowed himself to put his personal feelings in play brought about a punishment. He had asked the butler to tell Pharaoh about him so that he may be released. This amounted to Joseph questioning the value of his being in jail. As a result, the Torah stresses that the butler forgot, and Joseph languished two more years in that prison.

The evil eye is a result of jealousy. Jealousy is a feeling of "Him versus me." It is a win or lose mindset. Thus, when one boasts of their accomplishments and their possessions, those who have less hear in those words a claim of victory. They hear, "I have more than you, I win."

Joseph, on the other hand, says with his whole life, "I win, we win. No one loses." He was pleading with his brothers to recognize that his success was their success. Jacob was looking out for all of them by giving Joseph every opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Abraham and lead humanity, together, to God.

Thus, when we claim to be the descendents of Joseph, we are accessing this exact worldview. A parent is never jealous of their children. We are Joseph's children, meaning that we reject jealousy. The Talmud requires a physical gesture, wrapping our thumbs around each other and inside the palms of our hands. Without this gesture, the statement does not have power. The gesture, to my mind, indicates Joseph's worldview. It is saying a big, loud, "Us!" We wrap our thumbs around each other, we embrace each other. If I have success, it is yours as well. I live outward, not inward. When a person commits to this ideal, they become like the children of Joseph, immune to petty jealousy.

One third observation. I could say that Joseph did indeed suffer from the evil eye, but this Talmudic statement does not guarantee immunity. It guarantees that whatever the evil eye could wreak, it could not derail me from my mission. Whenever Joseph suffered, he used the opportunity to fulfill his mission. Whether in jail or the king's mansion, no evil eye could stop Joseph from trying to lead humanity together to God.