At the beginning of this week’s parshah, Jacob gives his favorite son, Joseph, the “coat of many colors,” evoking jealousy from his 11 other sons. Then Joseph, in what’s maybe not an example of his best judgment, tells his brothers of prophetic dreams he’s had that indicate that he’s the greatest in the family.
Even his father, Jacob, chastises him for this, but the brothers take their envy to a new level. Infamously, they initially want to kill him, but Reuben persuades them to resist that urge, so instead they throw him into a pit and sell him to Ishmaelites, who take him to Egypt.
What a horrible way to treat a brother, and what a sad way for the fathers of 11 of the tribes of Israel to treat the father of the 12th. Sadly, I can see this as a foreshadowing of the way Jews often treat one another today. It is bad enough that the Jewish people face rising, extreme hatred from people in the outside world, and I believe there is an additional problem coming from inside the house.
Most of us in the Jewish community feel comfortable and at home with our kind of people. We can often get along relatively fine with the other members of our synagogue, the other parents at school or our extended-family members across the holiday table.
But how much solidarity do we typically feel with the Jews who aren’t part of our immediate communities and ideological groups? How common is it for a secular Jew to have disdain for the black hat wearing ultra-Orthodox Jew as backwards and unevolved? And for a hareidi Orthodox Jew to look down upon the secular Jew as a hater of God and Torah? The same goes for a right-wing Zionist who detests non-Zionist Jews as self-hating, and for a liberal Zionist who dismisses those to their right as ultranationalist and colonialist. Or perhaps you view yourself as a religious or political centrist, and you judge those who stand firmly to both sides of you as irrational and extreme.
The problems we have with one another as Jews are important, and there’s no need to sweep our differences under the rug. But at some point, we stop having arguments for the sake of heaven and begin treating one another the way the brothers treated Joseph. Our jealousy or ideological fervor, both which can lead to hate, can lead us to do and say harmful things, dividing a community that ought to be bound together.
It’s already lonely out there to be a Jew in a country that is 98% gentile and a world that is almost 100% non-Jewish, especially with rising antisemitism nationally and globally. But then to feel hate from your own siblings is unbearable. If we can’t get past this for the betterment of our own lives, we must do it for the Jewish future. I believe petty disagreement may be a key factor why young Jews leave engagement. Young Jews can detect right away when a community is putting down others. We might think we’re inspiring a love for Reform Judaism when we tell the kids we dislike Orthodoxy — or that we’re inspiring Orthodox kids when we shame Reform Judaism as not authentically Jewish. But our children often pick up on our hate and run the other way.
We must build our children’s identities affirmatively, by showing them what we love, not by bashing the type of Jew we think we dislike. The only way for us to achieve the love of Am Yisrael commanded in the Torah is for us to set down our differences, even for just a little while, and come together as a people. The goal is not peoplehood; that’s a low bar. The goal is peoplehood united to actualize our moral mission in the world. Too often those who profess “Jewish unity” mean that other Jews should just think, and act, like them. There are many different moral and spiritual missions within the Jewish ethos that are worthy of our respect.
This does not require us to abandon our moral or religious convictions, or to silence the marketplace of ideas, but rather to learn how to create space for each other, for each to actualize their unique respective potential. As we’ll see by the end of the Book of Genesis, the brothers eventually do come together, make peace with one another and form the 12 tribes.
This parshah calls us to strive to have the same kind of reconciliation. In the Torah, it came from Joseph’s courage to reach out to those who have harmed him, and it came from the brothers’ humility to admit their wrongdoing. These are difficult qualities to exhibit, but no one said that being the Jewish people was going to be easy. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.