12 Dec 2014

Vayesheb 5775 – Rock or Soul

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable. To love is to be vulnerable.

— C.S. Lewis


I am a rock, I am an Island

And a rock feels no pain

And an island never cries

— Paul Simon

Over the next three weeks we will read the famous story of 12 brothers. The strife that runs among these siblings is both epic and troubling. They fall into such discord and animosity with their younger brother, Yoseph, that they seriously consider murdering him. This story, the longest biographical sequence in the Torah (14 chapters), teaches us a fundamental lesson about love and belonging.

We are not born with hearts of stone. The behaviour and feelings of Yaakob’s children, namely, murdering an entire city[1], selling their brother into slavery[2], and marginalising their own father, emerged, in no small part, from the circumstances of their upbringing. Yaakob loved Rachel, the mother of Yoseph, more than he did the mothers of his other children. Even upon her death, rather than spend his daily life with his second wife Leah, he opts instead, to dwell in the tent of Rachel’s maid servant[3]. That hurtful situation was exacerbated in the eyes of the children by the fact that he does not avenge their sister’s rape in the city of Shekhem[4], and by his show of special affection to Rachel’s son, Yoseph[5]. His behaviour created a keen sense among his children that their father lacked full affection for them and that they were not completely accepted members of his family[6].

Feeling unworthy of love and belonging — especially in one’s own family — affects our deepest thoughts about our own self-worth. At best, it causes us great emotional pain, at worst, it brings us shame. One way we tend to address this suffering is by limiting our vulnerability. We put up emotional and social barriers to shield ourselves from feeling such torment in the future. The brothers undoubtedly developed hardened shells around their hearts as a result of their feelings of inadequacy in the eyes of their father. But diminishing one’s own empathy and vulnerability — even as a means of defense — comes at a heavy price. The loss of these attributes brings darkness into the human heart and strangles its ability to love and care.

We do not always get to choose how others treat us. We do not choose our parents, our siblings, or any of the circumstances of our birth, and they can have ill effects on our psychological and emotional well-being. However, as we mature and grow into our individual selves, we can choose how we will respond to the effects of those circumstances. It may take great exertion and personal conviction to choose to heal its effects, but the choice remains ours. In the end, the health of our hearts is in our hands.

As the story unfolds, and many years pass, Yoseph meets his brothers once again in Egypt. He is now viceroy and presses them to see how they might care for his younger brother, Binyamin, the second son of Rachel. As they are pressed, they discover that while they may have been justified in their distress about Yoseph’s behaviour, and while they may have been able to excuse themselves for their feelings due to the pain of their early life, it would be at the expense of their capacity to love, care and build relationships. In the end, they acknowledged the fault of their cold-hearted treatment of him.

“And they said, each man to his brother: Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother! That we saw his heart’s distress when he implored us, and we did not listen. (42:21)[7]

At the end, the brothers chose love over hate, care over callousness and light over darkness. Each year, as we read this story and we watch the lights of our Hanuka candles, we are reminded that with all of the risk and courage it requires, it is light and love that we live for.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] 34:25-26

[2] 37:26-28

[3] Rashi, 35:22 s.v. וישכב

[4] 34:31

[5] 37:3-4

[6] Shimon and Levi treated Yaakov as if they were not his sons but strangers.  Rashi, 34:25

[7] While this admission may seem to fall short, in that it does not admit that the sale of Yoseph was wrong, I believe it hits the heart of the issue in that it addresses the very callousness that prompted the sale in the first place.