By Rabbi Kevin Bernstein
Vayigash brings us close to the end of the Bereshit narrative — so close, we can almost taste the matzah. Joseph and his estranged brothers are awkwardly reunited in the royal Egyptian palace, with Joseph struggling with how, and if, to use or abuse his power dealing with his brother and father. We are nearing the end of Genesis, which has taken us through the narratives of our ancestors as a tribe, before they are to become an enslaved nation while in Egypt, and a liberated nation when they leave.
Much of this early narrative is a chronicle of family dynamics. There is function and dysfunction. While Joseph’s story does not display improvement in how his family behaves, it does serve to show the complexity of sibling relationships.
Till Joseph, much of biblical sibling relationships have been “couples dancing.” Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Joseph’s is a family of 13 siblings, from four different mothers and one father. Family dynamics abound. So does family dysfunction.
It is encouraging and inspiring for me, in my work with religious school children and youth, to see how easily they understand and see the wrongs perpetrated by the same ancestors they are taught to love and respect — some of whom are even mentioned in their prayers. Kids understand that Cain should not have used violence. Kids know that Rebecca and Isaac should not have blatantly had their favorite sons.
Kids appreciate Esau’s and Jacob’s early rivalry, and their eventual reconciliation. Kids can see that Jacob should not have favored his son Joseph, and that Joseph might have been a bit obnoxious to his brothers, yet did not deserve the fraternal mistreatment. Adolescents understand that Simeon and Levi might have contributed to their sister’s maltreatment by Hamor.
Most important, kids understand that all of these are made complex by the unconditional love between siblings. Hopefully, many of us are blessed with this complexity. Our common ancestry, our common upbringing, the time we have spent together — can often be helpful or even necessary for us to remember and “pull from our hard drives.” We might have recently been reminded of this over the Thanksgiving table, during an animated discussion of very differing points of view, with those with whom we share this unconditional love.
Perhaps these same lessons about sibling relationships can be most helpful in a way that we have yet to realize or discover — the relationship between the brothers, sisters and siblings that make up the Jewish communities of Israel and North America.
We have not always been like siblings. For the first years of the existence of the state of Israel, American Jews felt and acted more like parents to the newborn state. Following World War II, Jewish Americans first began to feel secure and established, and thus began to behave in ways that that showed confidence in the ability to be part of America and express American Judaism. Israel, on the other hand, was then a newborn. Its survival was not a given. American Jewry acted as the parent, providing financial, political and emotional support, perhaps essential to Israel’s survival.
Both communities have since grown and matured. American Jewry has grown to know, perhaps painfully, that though we are indeed secure, we will always face threats from and have to deal with anti-Semitism. More significantly, is the maturity of the Israeli Jewish community. Israel is no longer dependent upon “mom and dad” Jewish America. It is a secure community which, like its “siblings” across the Atlantic, struggles with its particular challenges.
Here (re)enters unconditional love. We share common ancestry, history and faith, and our individual cultures meld into each other’s, sometimes just because we know more about each other, and sometimes because we value or enjoy things about each others culture.
The important part of our sibling relationship is what we can offer each other, with unconditional love. This is advice, suggestions and yes, sometimes, constructive gentle criticism. Jewish Israelis can help Jewish Americans understand how to recover from deadly attacks — just because the victims are Jews. Sadly, Israelis have too much experience with this.
Conversely, American Jews can help Israeli Jews understand the struggle with balancing Judaism and democracy, based upon longtime American experience in a society that wants to open its doors to everyone, yet knows that this is not always easy and simple.
Lobbying and fundraising have long dominated the relationship between American and Israeli Jewish communities. Perhaps this is actually a family dysfunction? Could this contribute to the alienation of young Jewish Americans and Israel? At these points of growth in our Jewish communities, our interactions with friends and relatives on both sides of the Atlantic (even those across our Thanksgiving tables) are crucial.
We can exchange ideas and suggestions in a constructive way, based upon an assumed unconditional sibling love for one another, similar to that felt in that royal Egyptian palace. Only after this sibling unconditional love causes Joseph “to break down, and kiss his brothers, were his brothers able to talk to him.”
Rabbi Kevin Bernstein is a dual Israeli-American citizen, and serves the community as a synagogue education director, ba’al tefillah and mohel. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.