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Dec 6 2013

Torah MOMentary: A Bond Between Brothers, Even Those Who Sell Each Other into Slavery

By at 10:30 am

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This post is part of our Torah commentary series. This past Shabbat we read Parashat Vayigash. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

As the mother of two boys, and someone who grew up with only a sister, I have recently taken an interest in stories of brothers.

I wonder about the special bond that some brothers share and what I might be able to do as a mother to nurture such a bond between my two boys. In looking to stories as role models, at first glance, I would not think that the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers would be one to which I would turn–jealousy that runs so deep that it causes Joseph’s brothers to plot together to sell him into slavery and then to deceive their own father into thinking that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. If anything, it reads like a worst case scenario, and the only thing I can take from it is relief that my boys’ jealousy of one another is not that bad, and that their greatest deception to date is hiding behind the couch to eat a candy bar that I had explicitly told them not to.

But by reading this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, I have found a more positive lesson in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Toward the end of last week’s Torah portion, Joseph hid a silver goblet in Benjamin’s (the youngest and his father’s most beloved son) bag as a test to see what the brothers would do when the goblet was discovered. Joseph demanded that, as punishment, Benjamin stay in Egypt as a slave.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we find Judah, the oldest of the brothers, stepping forward to plead with Joseph. His emotional plea spans the first 16 verses of the portion–somewhat lengthy for the Torah which is known for being terse and for having a purpose behind every word that is used. The word “av,” which means “father” is used 13 times throughout Judah’s plea, which can be summed up as, “I promised my father I would keep Benjamin safe. I must fulfill that promise, so please take me instead of Benjamin, because if Benjamin doesn’t return home, it will kill my father.” It is clear that, in that moment, Judah has his father’s feelings front-of-mind. He is so concerned about upsetting his father that he offers up his own freedom to save his brother. Ultimately, Judah’s loyalty toward his brother is a product of his father instilling in him the notion that he is responsible for his brother, and that he is in fact (excuse the misplaced biblical term) his brother’s keeper.

This is quite a contrast from what we read earlier in the Torah when Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. In those 14 verses, the word “av” is only mentioned once. It is clear that, in that moment, the brothers’ intense jealousy and hatred left little room for them to think about what their father would think of their actions, or how their father would want them to act toward one another.

It is in this contrast, that I find the lesson–that it is possible, even for brothers who previously did something so horrible to one of their own–to mature to the point where they hear their father’s (let’s extend this to parents’) voices in their head at times when they have to make a critical decision about how to treat one another. They have become able to think about how their actions would make their parents feel, and what it is that their parents would want them to do for one another, even–and perhaps especially–when their parents are not there to witness it.

I certainly pray that my boys are never in a situation where one has to offer himself up to save the other, but my husband and I do talk to them about how it is their job to look out for one another. And though it is hard to believe it after a long afternoon filled with the inevitable cries of “dumb-head,” “he took my toy,” “he’s being mean,” and even the dreaded, “I wish he wasn’t my brother,” I see glimpses of that message coming through.

Some of my proudest parenting moments have happened when I am not around: When the counselors told me how loving my older son was to my younger son when the younger one cried every morning at the beginning of camp. Or when my younger son’s teacher told me that he always asks for an extra sticker/book/goody bag for his older brother. In these moments–which happen out there in the world, when my husband and I are not present to reward good behavior or punish poor behavior–I understand that deep down, even if they don’t show it most of the time, they are starting to internalize what we teach them, that they are responsible for one another, and that nothing makes us happier than seeing them carry out that responsibility.

Though in this week’s Torah portion, we are not privy to knowing whether Judah’s father ever found out what Judah did to save his younger brother, I can only imagine that if he did, he would feel the same sense of pride as I did from the conversations with my sons’ counselors and teachers (OK, likely more proud, given the seriousness of the situation).

Now, if he could only learn not to play favorites

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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