The True Power of Children of Israel

Why does the Torah tell us at such great length of the dysfunctional relationship of Joseph and his brothers? We have three separate Torah readings to cover this entire story! That is a lot of focus, and the question is why.

The details of the story are known far and wide. I wish to probe Joseph's behavior towards his brothers when they came to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph was the second in command, and it was his job to oversee the food distribution during the years of famine. When the brothers, with the exception of Benjamin, stood before him, he recognized them quickly. They, however, did not recognize him. The Torah tells us that, "And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed to them, and now he became estranged to them and spoke harshly to them."

Joseph chooses to run his brothers through the wringer. He accuses them of being spies, requires them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt the next time they come. Until then, he will incarcerate Simon. At that moment, the brothers discuss among themselves their guilt in selling Joseph. "When our brother cried to us and begged us, we did not listen. Now his blood is being sought." Reuben responds with, "Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?"

Joseph is moved by this discussion, and must leave the room in order to cry. What moved him so? And if so, why did he continue the charade of accusing them of spying? Isn't their contrition clear? Why not reunite the family already?

The Torah gives us a hint by mentioning that Joseph's memory of the dreams was the catalyst for his behavior. Some commentaries see on Joseph's part an attempt to force the fulfillment of his dreams. 10 of his brothers have already bowed down to him. He still needs Benjamin to do so, and he needs the sun and moon, representing his father and mother, to do so as well. Since Rachel has already passed away, the commentaries say this refers to her maidservant, Bilhah. The problem I have with this approach is that Jacob did not bow down to Joseph when he arrived in Egypt. In fact, he only did it far after the fact, as he was on his deathbed. Joseph never seems to force that issue.

The commentary of rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin points out that the brothers expressed their guilt to each other when Simon was going to be locked up. They saw in this Divine retribution, where nine brothers consigned the 10th to slavery and incarceration. They were nine in number when they sold Joseph, and now nine of them would return to the land of Canaan, while the 10th would go to jail in Egypt. This indicated divine punishment for their parallel offense.

I believe that it was Reuben's comment that he had warned the brothers at the time not to harm Joseph that moved Joseph to tears. He probably hadn't known that not all of the brothers wanted to do away with them. Nonetheless, this contrition was not enough. It was the contrition of a thief who gets caught, no more than that. Joseph had a more rigorous goal for his brothers: to accept with joy his leadership. To become part of the mission, part of the team.

Joseph's dream about the brothers bowing to him was misunderstood by the brothers. To them, it is the vanquished that bows to the victor. For them, it was a zero sum game. If Joseph won, they lost. What was missing was the possibility that they were all on the same team.

That is what Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean. To him, bowing indicates submission to the mission. Subjects bow to a king in a gesture of willingness to join together in the national interest. There must be one leader, and bowing acknowledges that leader. Nonetheless, all are on the same team. And, in the case of Joseph and his brothers, what is this team called?

It is called a family. Family is the key to the Jewish people's mission. In a normal family, each individual is committed to the welfare of the others and of the whole. The family of Jacob have a mission, and everybody needs to be on board with it. Joseph sought, by this whole performance, to bring the brothers to the point of recognizing that he is the best leader for the family mission. When they reconcile at the end, he keeps stressing that they're selling them to slavery enabled him to save countless lives and entire nations.

Now, however, that the must be understood to have been a tragedy. The brothers must be brought to the same situation, where they face the same exact choice. Benjamin is the new Joseph, he is Jacob's new favorite son. Jacob is probably even more protective of Benjamin than he was of Joseph! So Joseph needs to see that the brothers are now going to stand up for each other, and become a true family. He is going to test them. He does it now with Simon, and they pass. He will do it with Benjamin, and when they pass that test, he can reveal himself.

How many families craft a mission statement? Individuals do it. Businesses do it. Families should as well. A family is the greatest possible team, and can accomplish the greatest feats. The family of Israel, even in the first generations, transformed the world.

Chanukah is a festival of family. The lighting of the candles is incumbent upon each household, not each individual. In theory, a person could fulfill the Mitzvah of candle lighting without touching a match and without seeing a flame. As long as the menorah is lit in the home, every member of that household has fulfilled their obligation.

The Talmud gives different levels of observance of this Mitzvah. The basic one is to have one candle for each household. The higher level is to have the amount of candles depend on the amount of members of the family. Thus, a family of four with light for candles every night Chanukah. The highest level is to light one additional candle with each night. That is the way we do it.

This emphasis on the family is not by accident. It was one family that brought about the entire miracle of Chanukah! The Macabbees were the sons of one man, Matityahu. This family chose a mission of national importance, and immediately attracted an army capable of defeating the powerful Greeks! That is how important a family mission is! Families create a team like nothing else. Thus, we fulfill the Mitzvah of Chanukah with an emphasis on the family.

On this Festival of Lights, let's kindle the light of family, and let's sit down as a family and write a mission statement. What a wonderful transformation this can bring! It is the secret of the power and eternity of the Jewish people.