Problematic Parents, Battling Siblings: How Did We Jews Ever Get to be Who We Are
(Rabbi Ron Klotz)
“And they took him [Joseph] and cast him into the pit, and the pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24)
I am an only child who always wanted to have a brother. But since Simchat Torah we’ve been reading about our ancestors’ escapades. Now I’m not so sure. It’s hard to imagine how we became a People given their dastardly deeds. It all started with Eve, the rebellious teenager eating the forbidden fruit. Then her son Cain kills Abel, Abraham expels his first-born, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mom Hagar, just before taking Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice. Thank goodness he saw the light and that poor ram got caught by its horns in the thicket.
Isaac doesn’t do much himself, but look at what happens with his sons and grandchildren. Jacob steals and lies his way into the birthright and blessing, and his sons throw their brother into a pit.
Being an only child might be better than being the eleventh son, as Joseph is. Jacob loves Joseph the most because he is the son of his old age (and because he’s the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel). Joseph is a spoiled and conceited young man; spoiled by colorful gifts from his father and conceited enough to let his brothers know that one day, they and their father will bow before him, as described in Joseph’s dreams. We know that all of this comes to be, years later, in Egypt. But can you imagine how the family must have felt then? Throwing a brother like Joseph into a pit might not have been such a bad idea, especially when trying to maintain Shalom Bayit (peace in the home).
Recently, my Hebrew class discussed the Joseph-pit experience. I read the students the passage, “and they took him, and cast him into the pit, and the pit was empty; there was no water in it.” “The pit was empty”—so why tell us that there was no water in it? And was this lack of water good or bad? The biblical commentator Rashi makes sure we appreciate the incident’s ultimate horror by explaining “there was no water in it” indicates what was in the pit, serpents and scorpions. So the pit was not really empty, rather it was filled with horrors.
How can we ask God to forgive us based on the merits of our ancestors (Zechut Avot) given all their wrongdoings, as described in Genesis? Perhaps we should think in terms of outcome. Knowing how it all ends may help. If it weren’t for Sarah helping Abraham choose Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac passing along the birthright and blessing to Jacob, and Jacob’s sons selling Joseph into slavery, there would have been no one to save the Jewish people from the seven-year famine that brought Jacob’s family to Egypt. We Jews would not have gone from slavery to People-hood, Moses would not have been born, and we wouldn’t be looking for the Afikomen next spring.
We Jews are here for a reason; a reason important enough to have ensured that we continue. Despite those pesky acts of our ancestors, we shouldn’t lose sight of their great faith in and personal relationships with God. Their deeds and misdeeds make for a great story, and prepare us for what comes next -- commandments. Perhaps Genesis was written this way to get our attention, so that we would be ready to become a People and receive the ethical and moral commandments in Exodus and elsewhere in the Torah. Living ethical and moral lives, and passing on those essential and fundamental human values, constitute the light; we Jews are the illuminators.
Still, Cain, Jacob, and Joseph’s ten brothers aren’t very good role models for siblings. But they are noteworthy. We all know that brothers and sisters can love each other and be best friends, but that won't make the 11:00 PM news.
But, you know what? I still wish I had a brother.