The Values of a Jewish Home

Vayeshev By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 5, 2015 / 5776 | Torah Commentary | Israel

A few weeks ago, Etgar Keret, an accomplished author on the Israeli literary scene, made a pilgrimage from his home in Tel Aviv to JTS’s Schocken Institute in Jerusalem to address a group of rabbinical students from JTS and HUC. Among the many thoughtful and reflective insights he shared, he spoke of the need for Israeli society to reflect the best of Jewish values. As a stark illustration to the contrary, he pointed to the last Israeli election. Naftali Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), campaigned under the slogan of מפסיקים להתנצל (Enough apologizing!). Bennett’s  message was that Israel should stop apologizing with regard to any of its behavior (misguided or not). It was a pride-filled message tailored for Bennett’s nationalist constituency. Keret decried Bennett’s slogan. “How could anyone call such a message Jewish?

Apologizing is a deeply Jewish value—and yet the party that called itself ‘The Jewish Home’ ran on a slogan that makes a mockery of Jewish values.” Keret’s point is well taken. Though Bennett sought to instill a sense of Jewish pride—it was a narrow-minded pridefulness that turned off most Israelis. In many ways, one could argue that Bennett sought to adopt an idea deeply foreign to the Jewish soul. In this week’s parashahParashat Vayeshev, Joseph acts with the same misguided thinking propelling us to wrestle with the place of Jewish values in Jewish leadership.

At the opening of our parashah, we are introduced to Joseph as the favored son of his father, Jacob. Jacob showers exceeding love upon Joseph and then foolishly gifts Joseph with a colorful tunic that rightfully triggers enmity and jealousy of his brothers. Joseph’s ego inflates as he experiences two dreams of grandeur. First, we read of the image of the brothers binding sheaves of wheat. Joseph’s sheaf stands upright and the others bow low to his sheaf (Gen. 37:7). Two verses later, he dreams a second dream, of the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him (verse 9).

Part of what shocks the reader is that rather than keeping these dreams to himself, Joseph recklessly shares these dreams with his brothers. Shouldn’t he have had enough self-awareness to realize that such behavior would only increase the hatred and enmity between himself and his brothers? To be sure, Sigmund Freud famously remarks, “The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life” (The Interpretation of Dreams).

Additionally, Leon Kass brilliantly illuminates the import of Joseph’s dreams in his book The Beginning of Wisdom. Kass asks the question, “What kind of a shepherd dreams of sheaves of wheat?” And then he continues, “The imagery of the dream belongs to another place, to a more fertile place, where one man does indeed command obeisance from all around, namely Egypt. Joseph’s dream is foreign” (517). Joseph is a model of reckless disregard for his brothers’ feelings. And more than that, his delusions of power and domination echo an Egyptian ethos—as Kass points out so well.

Though a son of Israel (literally and figuratively), his essence is divorced from the Land of Israel. Very beautifully Kass goes a step further in contrasting Joseph’s behavior with his brothers to Moses’s interactions with his brethren. Moses, who ironically enough, is raised as Egyptian is endowed with an Israelite soul. Exodus 2:11 teaches, “Some time after that, Moses had grown up, he went out to his brethren and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren . . . and struck the Egyptian.” Moses goes out to see his brothers and expresses his solidarity with them. He strikes down one of their oppressors.

And step by step, he spends his life building trust with his people. Far from alienation and intrigue, Moses lives in a world of connection and community. The brotherly bond is sacred to this leader. Moses sees far beyond the self while Joseph seems confined and bound by self. Kass quotes Yuval Levin in stating the case even more emphatically: “The fact that Joseph dreams Egyptian dreams in Canaan and seems to be an Egyptian long before he ever enters Egypt can perhaps tell us something about Egypt as well as about Joseph. How can Egyptian attitudes emerge amidst the people of the covenant? . . . Is Joseph a one-man Egypt? What causes this worldview to emerge in man?” (Kass, 519).

Too often, rootedness in home leads to a sense of pridefulness and triumphalism. The desire for security paves the way to security gone awry. We attribute our stability and growth solely to the work of our hands. Self-reliance becomes the guiding slogan, and a sense of mutuality and community diminish. Putting too much stock in one’s self leads to idolatry, and worse, it is a slippery slope directly to the straits of Egypt.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook shares an important insight related to Jacob commanding Joseph to go out and seek the welfare of his brothers in Shekhem: lekh na re’eh et shelom achekha. Kook reads shelom more literally, not as “welfare” but rather as “completeness.”

In other words, “don’t just dwell on a narrow view of your brothers, but rather see them in their fullness . . . see them as who they are really are. And most importantly, see them as your brothers.” Parashat Vayeshev serves as a powerful warning to the Jewish people as a whole. We need to eschew thoughts of pridefulness, triumphalism, and narrow-mindedness (all that comes to be represented by the biblical land of Egypt). We, like the rest of humanity, must continue to master the art of the apology. There are times when we are wrong. And, so too, Vayeshev challenges us to reclaim the art of the Jewish dream. We must seek to be leaders like Moses. Let us all continue down the path of Moses—going out and seeing their brethren, embracing a sense of peoplehood and connectedness, and committing to nurture it.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).