General, Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat VaYeshev: “Love of a Brother” – Joseph, his brothers & International Human Rights Day

0 Comments 06 December 2017

Mocked as “a dreamer,” Joseph is hated by his brothers who come dangerously close to murdering him.  Generations later, Israeli human rights defenders find themselves similarly despised by their own “brothers.” In this week’s commentary to Parashat VaYeshev, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann reminds us of the importance of our commitment, as a nation of Jews and as citizens of the world, to the protection of human rights.

By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

In our Torah portion, we see the brothers —the sons of Jacob — with all their hatred of Joseph, the favoured arrogant son of Rachel, forget their responsibility as brothers to him. They throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery. Instead of brotherly solidarity we have brotherly hatred in this story.

Sometimes it seems as if the attitude in our society today towards “brothers” who are committed to the vision of human rights in the state of Israel and in the occupied territories is similar to the attitude of the brothers to Joseph; there seems to be a desire to throw human rights activists into a pit and forget about them. They are seen as arrogant and haughty. Perhaps there is indeed a need for the human rights organizations to consider how they appear to the general public when doing their holy work. In any case these “bleeding hearts,” these “leftists,” because they might have served in the army, are highly educated and knowledgeable, and are Israeli citizens who belong to the privileged class here of the Jewish people,  are particularly disturbing to their fellow Israelis. Their work disturbs the tranquility and self-righteousness of the mainstream. In the eyes of many it would be more comfortable were they to disappear and stop disturbing the peace with their criticisms and lovely but unrealistic dreams of the brotherhood of nations and coexistence.

Joseph and his dreams also disturbed the peace.

As his brothers said of him sarcastically in our parasha:

“So they said one to the other, ‘Behold, that dreamer is coming'” -Genesis 37:19

And further on they say:

“So now, let us kill him, and we will cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams.” -Genesis  37:26

Like Joseph who was in need of greater sensitivity from his father before giving him that special “coat of many colours” that caused him such strife with his brothers, we need more sensitivity from Israeli society, more understanding of the heavy social price and even dangers faced by citizens who dare take on the great but necessary responsibility. For a healthy Israeli society, both spiritually and in terms of democratic rule, the willingness to criticize and to protest injustice from a commitment to justice and righteousness is essential, and deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, they who actually do this holy work appear to others as if they are wearing that special coat, they are often in trouble like the prophets of old since, as Amos does in this week’s Haphtarah, they warn of the approaching disaster that the people’s sins are leading to. The people do not want to hear this, of course.

There is an echo throughout this story of the primal message of the Genesis story of the first murder in human history. I am referring to Cain’s question after he killed his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Genesis 4: 9). The brother in that story is in fact every human being. (I have developed this theme in the past in a previous dvar Torah.) 

And that bloodshed – and the almost murder of Joseph – is the result of jealousy and hatred. Every person, including those such as human rights workers whose call to higher standards is disturbing to society, should be protected by law, and not be the focus of hate campaigns by governments.

cc: flickr Rahat and al Arkib residents together with Israeli activists, shout slogans against the upcoming decision to approve the Prawer Plan - which calls for the regulation of the settlement of the Bedouin people - Rahat, May 25, 2013

cc: flickr Protest against Prawer

Had Joseph been protected back then perhaps the 400 years of slavery in Egypt would not have resulted from the acts of hatred described in this week’s reading.

As opposed to the others, Yehuda and Reuven sense that it is wrong to murder a brother, and, in doing so, open the way to future redemption.

See, for instance, what Yehuda says:

“’Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.‘ And his brothers hearkened.” (Genesis, 37, 27)

And this is despite the hatred they feel because of his arrogance. They overcome their hatred because of this understanding, at least to the extent of saving his life.

This coming Sunday, the tenth of December will be celebrated in many countries around the world as International Human Rights Day. Seventy years ago on that date in 1948, just half a year before Israel’s declaration of Independence that incorporated a public commitment to that vision, the community of nations set out a guide for the international community as to what ought to be the parameters of individual rights in a society. The first of those rights -the right to life and human dignity – is very basic in Jewish teaching and also a foundation stone of all other human rights as expressed in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was subsequently legislated as a basic law of the state of Israel. It was amongst other things a reaction to the Nazi Holocaust and other widespread atrocities of the Second World War. In a sense, the international community then was answering Cain’s question that reverberates through this Shabbat’s Torah story of Joseph and his brothers.

This understanding is translated in the U.N.Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 into a broader answer to the Biblical rhetorical question, asserting the right to life and dignity of every human on the international scale. The nations then declared that in fact “you are your brother’s keeper!” or perhaps “We are our brothers’ keepers.” Those that signed and celebrated this declaration ratified that commitment. The state of Israel did so. It might be true that this is a noble standard beyond human capability, as we have seen since in so many countries – including here – but this idea has its roots in Jewish teaching and striving to realize it is the role/fate of our people here in the Land of Israel. That is to say that our right to be here is linked not only to our past connection to this country but even more so to our behavior here at present and in the future.

In the selection from the prophets for this Shabbat there is a verse:

“So said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four, I will not return them; For selling an innocent man for money, and a poor man in order to lock [the fields].” -Amos 2: 6

This verse hints at the selling of Joseph into slavery because of baseless hatred, but beyond that it too is connected to the noble religious vision of human responsibility – even between peoples – in the realm of morality. The prophet tells the people of Israel that just as other peoples were punished according to their moral failings – this appears in the chapter before the one we read in the synagogues – so too Israel will be punished for its immorality.

Earlier in the book of Amos the prophet says, for instance:

“So said the Lord: For three sins of Tyre, yea for four, I will not return them; Because they delivered a whole captivity to Edom and did not remember the brotherly covenant.” – Amos 1: 9

May it be G-d’s will that we be worthy of the prophets’ vision that is mentioned in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and remember that we are here because of “a brotherly covenant” of humanity as envisioned by our founding fathers and as was envisioned in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights seventy years ago.

We are all brothers, for have we not one father!

“Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why should we betray,  each one his brother…?” -Malachi 2: 10

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Yehiel Greniman is director of organizational development at Rabbis for Human Rights

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