This week’s parshah, Vayigash, begins with one of the most poignant and literary moments in the Torah. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers that he is not only the one they sold into slavery but he is one of the leaders of Egypt. This exchange takes place after Joseph had enacted revenge by planting objects and accusing his brothers of stealing and Judah pleads with Joseph (whom he doesn’t recognize) to let Benjamin return to Canaan and Jacob, their father, and have Judah stay in his place. The region is in the midst of a seven year famine and the brothers are in Egypt attempting to buy much needed supplies. After Joseph tells his brothers who he is, he asks whether or not Jacob is still alive. Judah assures him that he is and then the whole family is moves to Egypt, which of course sets up the Jewish people being slaves, but that is a topic for another d’var.
As I re-read the telling of when Joseph reveals his true identity what struck me was the obvious lovey-doviness of this reunion – and not the one between father and beloved son – but between the brothers. Brothers, who if you remember, treated each other incredibly callously and acted with real, unadulterated hatred toward one another. I mean, how else do you categorize bragging about a parent’s affection, selling your brother into slavery and then telling your father your brother was eaten by wild animals, and then having that brother come to power, unbeknownst to you, and then seek revenge. The ability to let bygones be bygones seems an important lesson in itself. Looking out at the world as we move into the New Year, it seems like in general everyone could benefit from reading this week’s portion. But I don’t think “love more” is really that practical of a suggestion, but it did make me wonder what our tradition has to say about love and how to love. Call it a hunch, I figured I would find something,.
Maimonides writes in Laws of Character Development that the only way to draw people close is through love. On first glance, this seems pretty straight forward – the whole you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar concept. People want to be treated with respect and understanding, and I get that (that is how I want to be treated). But does this mean we are to blindly accept and learn to love the faults of those around us? In the story of Joseph and his brothers there are some pretty large character flaws and incidents to forgive and forget. Is this really even possible?
And then in the Talmud I found this “Without reproof there can be no (true) love.” Now this seems to have some legs. So yes, love everyone (as best you can) but this doesn’t mean you have to love blindly. Our tradition gives us the power to better our relationships and the world at large by telling us that love is as much about challenging those around us as turning a blind eye to their faults or wrongdoings.
As an example of standing up and chastising out of love, I would be remiss in not mention what is happening in Bet Shemesh. For those of you who haven’t heard, a girls’ elementary school was built for the orthodox-zionist community on the border of a Haredi neighborhood. Since the school opened the students, girls 7, 8, 9, 10 have been yelled at, spit on and attacked by a minority group of Haredi men. This story was recently featured on the Israeli news and was then picked up by msnbc. This story has elicited condemnation from across the Jewish spectrum – from the most progressive communities to other ultra-orthodox groups such as Aish HaTorah. The message from all the groups is this is NOT the way of Torah, Jews should love (or try to) love other Jews. My hope is that eventually this group of radicals hears this message that comes from many Jewish communities – including communities where people live Torah observant lifestyles and from outward appearances look the same as these extremists. But mostly it reminds me that we have a duty, as Jews to speak up and criticize other Jews when necessary – and that we do it out of love. Because ultimately, these people are our brothers (and sisters), even if we disagree with their actions and it is up to us to remind them of the right way to act and to live our lives as an example. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the families of the girls who have organized shifts to walk the girls to school, who have not yielded to the pressure and who have resisted the idea of dividing Bet Shemesh because they believe, as Jews, We should all be able to live together – with the idea that God said to Israel, “My children what do I seek from you? Nothing more than that you love one another and another one another.”
For me, the lesson of love through criticism is easy to learn when it comes to large, world issues that we are naturally removed from. But when it comes to interpersonal relationships it is much harder to accept criticism when it comes from a loved one. The ones closest to us are the ones who can hurt us the most even when – especially when – they are telling us something we already know but need to hear anyway. Comments from loved ones no matter what they are or when are given seem to be ill-timed, worded insensitively and generally unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some validity there. The brothers were all reproved whether it was when Jacob didn’t believe his sons that Jospeh lived, because he thought them liars, or when Joseph gave Benjamin finer clothes to show how futile the fight over the jacket really was, or when Pharoah told Joseph to talk to his brothers. This was all done out of love and affection – from people they had real and deep relationships with. I can’t imagine that these were easy lessons to learn on either side – important doesn’t usually mean easy..
So my resolution as I head into the New Year is to learn to take any reproof that comes from love as it was meant and to remember that this person has a duty to me out of love – to challenge me and push me and I have duty, out of love, to challenge them right back when necessary.