Shown on HBO in recent weeks, the anguished film "To Die in Jerusalem" tells the story of a grieving Israeli mother who sets out to meet a grieving Palestinian mother. The Israeli was mourning her daughter -- the tragic lone victim of a suicide bomb which had been ignited by the daughter of the Palestinian woman. The two dead young women had even looked alike.
After many difficulties and many obstructions, the two grieving women finally do meet. But no intimacy, no closeness, indeed no real understanding at all emerges. The two mothers cannot truly see one another, cannot empathize with one another, for they are both trapped in their enemy camps, in their mutually exclusive understandings of the past and their different interpretations of the meaning of the present. They cannot face the grief each other feels; they cannot see one another simply as people, simply as mothers. They certainly cannot call one another by their names.
What mechanisms within our own psyches numb our ability to recognize the reality of another? What psychic processes enable us to be violently cruel toward another?
Parashat VaYeshev offers us some painful but profoundly insightful clues.
To begin with, Jacob sends his son Joseph from their encampment in Hevron, to see how the brothers are faring as they pasture the family flocks in the area of Shechem. No sooner does the text tells us that Joseph finds them, than it says of the brothers:
"They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, a savage beast devoured him…When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic…and took him and cast him into the pit." (Gen 37:18-24)
Simple if painful words, but profoundly revealing of just those psychic processes that make us capable of terrible cruelty at worst, indifference at best, and always a failure at even rudimentary empathy. Let’s look at the words carefully.
"They saw him from afar." Remember when, earlier in Genesis, Abraham sat in the opening of his tent, in the heat of day, and saw three men – or perhaps three angels – coming toward him out of the desert? Though our commentators remind us that this event was very soon after his circumcision – and thus Abraham was in all likelihood still in pain – the text tells us that, in order to see the troop of visitors, Abraham "lifted up his eyes" (Gen 18:2). Similarly, when Isaac sees Rebeka, the text tells us that "he lifted up his eyes and saw" (Gen 25:63-4). But now, in the Joseph story, there is no "lifting up" of eyes – there is only the physical act of mere seeing (va’yiru oto, they saw him) . To merely see is to see with what the British poet William Blake called "single vision". That is, it is to objectify the other – indeed, not really to see the personhood of the other at all. It is to be closed to the spiritual reality of the other, the "thouness," and thus what one sees is easily only one’s own anger, frustration, jealousy, or need – the object of one’s own projections. That is why no sooner does the Torah tell us that Joseph "found" his brothers, than it emphasizes that they saw him from "afar." That "afar" signals not merely the geographical distance between them, but the brothers’ emotional and spiritual distance from Joseph, the distance that enables them to turn Joseph into an object.
They do not call him their "brother."
Instead, their brother Joseph is described only as a "him": "let us kill him"; "throw him into one of the pits"; even Reuben, who apparently intends to save Joseph later, when speaking to his brothers says "Cast him into that pit…but do not touch him yourselves…" So long as the Torah wants us to see Joseph through the eyes of his murderous brothers – even when Reuben seeks to save him – Joseph remains emotionally merely an object, a pronoun, an addendum to their rage. The Hebrew reinforces that sense of rage, for rather than functioning as a separate pronoun, the "him" becomes embedded in the very words that speak of their desire for revenge; it is as if he is swallowed up in it: nahargayhu; nashlichayhu; achaltihu).
Once Joseph has been stripped of his much envied coat of many colors and tossed into the bottom of the pit, the brothers’ violent outburst of rage is assuaged. It is as if their hatred of him has been pushed from the forefront of their consciousness back into the depths of their unconscious – erased, blotted out, at the bottom of the pit. They leave their brother without water and sit down to eat.
In our imaginations, we might see a great hush coming over the scene. Each man, silently chomping on his bread, becomes lost in thought. And then, for the first time, they lift up their eyes and see the caravan. Now the text does not tell us they saw the caravan "from afar," though certainly that would have seen a caravan from a distance long before they would spot a lone individual coming from the distance. It is after their rage is spent that they become capable of some kind of illumination from within rather than mere "seeing." Though initially he cannot admit remorse, Judah, at least, questions whether they should kill their brother: "What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh" (37:26). To kill Joseph is to kill themselves –that is what they see when they "lift up their eyes."
But they cannot sustain that level of awareness, which would lead to the acknowledgement of their cruelty and their need for repentance. They have to distance themselves from their murderous intentions, the darkness revealed in their own souls, and thus they have to distance themselves from Joseph himself.
They sell him to the Ishmaelites.
The young Palestinian woman who strapped explosives around her belt and blew herself up at a supermarket in Jerusalem, killing the young Israeli woman who was also there had had not only not to lift up her eyes; she had had to close them as tightly as possible so as not to take it the overwhelming cruelty to herself and to Jews of what she was doing.
The grieving mothers of the killer and the killed remained too trapped in their own losses to lift up their eyes, even though, indeed, they tried not to see one another only from "afar."
Over and over again, we human beings have been capable of the most hideous cruelty to one another; one can’t help wonder what it will take for all of us to one day see that all other human beings are our brothers, and our sisters, and "our own flesh."