Parshat Vayeshev

By Susan Laemmle, December 1, 2018

Like many of you I imagine, I’m fond of the short insert at the end of the Torah service that comes on the Shabbat before each New Month, rendering it Shabbat M’vorchim — the Sabbath of Blessing. With the wrapped Torah before us, we stand to join the Shaleach-Tzibur in chanting three sections, the central one of which proclaims the upcoming month. Mayer Brenner has just beautifully led us in that chanting as we approach the month of Tevet.

This morning, I’d like to reflect upon the Birchat Ha-Chodesh prayer, and then use one verse of the proclaiming section as a bridge to this week’s parsha.

One would think that Birchat Ha-Chodesh’s opening section Ye-hee ratzon mi-lifanecha was written expressly for this occasion; but that’s not so. Except for the third line referring to the new month, it was composed by Rav during the 3rd century as his personal prayer to follow the daily Amidah. The things for which he asked nearly two millennia ago remain relevant: a life that is extended, peaceful, and blessed; during which we enjoy physical vitality, social abundance, and love of Torah — and avoid shame or reproach. If we are pious and self-aware, we mean what we say in asking to be “conscious of heaven’s demands and wary of sin” and granted only “the worthy desires of our hearts.”

After this largely personal opening section, the second half of the prayer asks blessings upon the Jewish People. In the middle of the prayer, functioning like a hinge between local and national concerns, comes the name and day/days of the new month.

Just before that announcement, God is invoked in a way that particularly fits Chanukah — as “the one who wrought miracles for our ancestors” beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and stretching to “the gathering of our dispersed from the four corners of the earth.” Amidst this historical and theological sweep comes the phrase that particularly resonates with me: chaverim kol Yisrael — translated by our new siddur as: “May the entire people Israel be united in friendship.”

For me, what’s touching about the phrase chaverim kol Yisrael is its compact simplicity and everyday language. Thus, I would prefer the most literal translation: “All Jews are friends.” This statement covers some of the same territory as the well-known kol Yisrael arayvim zeh b’zeh: “All Jews are responsible for one another,” which has motivated us from the redemption of pirated captives to the campaign for

Soviet Jewry. And yet, being friends with someone can actually be more difficult that being responsible for them. To be a real friend, you have to like them and be willing to share with them. That’s the tough part.

We move now to Parshat-Vayeshev, which initiates the Joseph story that occupies the rest of Sefer-Bereshit. The story’s drama focuses on Joseph, favored by his father Jacob and at odds with his 11 brothers. Essentially, the Jewish national story is rooted in sibling rivalry.

From Cain and Abel, to Joseph and his brothers, to many of us with our siblings and among our children, there arises the challenge of nurturing friendship within the petri dish of blood or blood-like relationships —of endeavoring to take the differences among children in a family neutrally, rather than judgmentally and hierarchically. It seems to me that for growing and grown children, this challenge requires significant learning — learning to handle being treated less than fairly, learning to empathize with our sibling’s sense of grievance, and learning to talk things over rather than letting feelings fester.

Such festering breaks to the surface in our parsha. Rashi drashes the opening word va-yeshev thus: “Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility but the anguish of Joseph fell upon him.” We are well familiar with the likely sources of that anguish, going back to Jacob’s having two wives, with the two sons of Rachel preferred over the more numerous, earlier-born sons of Leah.

Whether because of his father’s favor, his brothers’ enmity, or his own nature, Joseph adds insult to injury by becoming a boaster and tale bearer. His father’s sending him to join his pasturing brothers has been interpreted as naïve failure to protect his vulnerable young son and as positive moral instruction urging him to “search out the good points of your brothers rather than their imperfections.” What winds up happening to Joseph — the pit, being sold into slavery, his ups and downs and ups in Egypt — validates both interpretations. In the end, of course, the family is reconciled, though at a very high —even if providentially guided — cost.

Chaverim, kol Yisrael: Are the sons of Israel/Jacob friends by the time their father dies? Are they friends by the time Joseph dies, making his brothers promise to carry his bones with them when they leave Egypt? Are they friends by the time their multiplied descendants go out, cross the parted sea, and arrive at Sinai? By the time they stand at Sinai to receive the Torah, wander in the dessert, and follow Joshua to enter the Land? When they build the Temple, see it destroyed, and build it again? When they leave the Land once again, and then return two thousand years later? After all the destruction and repair, death and renewal, suffering and achievement, do they become — are we now — friends?

The Tanach presents to us at least two great representations of personal, dyadic friendship: David & Jonathan, and Ruth & Noami. The rabbis extol the value of friendship, so that “your friend’s honor is as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:15). Hassidic Judaism places special emphasis on the value of friendship among the adherents of a given Hassidic rebbe, endowing it with theological significance.

But how do siblings, individual Jews, and groups within the Jewish people grow beyond envy and rivalry to accept who they are and what they have as enough? Can we build families and communities founded on justice and good practice — and carry on with equanimity when complete fairness eludes us? What enables the sister or brother of a talented, attractive Josephine to support her fulfillment, rather than trip her up — or stew with corrosive resentment? In a world of expanding possibilities and declining resources, how shall we find the paths toward peace and well-being?

Being bound together biologically provides a bottom-line, a foundation that is argued with or denied at great cost. In contrast, becoming friends with others takes place in an arena of free choice. The relationship is less encumbered, less fraught; both less, and potentially more, profound. It is an ideal worth striving for, whether yoked to a blood (or legal) relationship or on a separate track. Within our families, our tribe, and our world, the ideal of friendship glimmers like the waxing moon in the evening sky.

Shabbat shalom

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