Bereshit is probably the biblical book most read and most commented on by people today. I would like to suggest that one of the main reasons for this is its emphasis on dysfunctional sibling relationships, something most of us continue to have personal experience with some 3,000 years later.
Parshat Vayigash: Genesis 44:18-47:27; Ezekiel 37:15-37:28.
The story of Joseph and his evolving relationship with his brothers is the most articulated text on this topic in the entire book.
Two weeks ago, in Parshat Vayeshev, the seeds of animosity and distrust were sown. Joseph, his father’s favorite son, not only told grandiose stories of his expected dominance within the family to his brothers, but he eagerly tattled to his father about their various misdeeds. Jacob, in turn, encouraged Joseph to spy on his brothers’ activities. The 10 brothers, as a result, fulfilled every big brother or sister’s dream: They sold Joseph to a band of wandering traders.
Last week, in Parshat Mikketz, Joseph, who had been both a slave and a prisoner, experienced a change of fortune. He was now the grand vizier of all of Egypt. Why did this second most powerful man in the entire Middle East not send a letter home, telling his father he was OK? Why did he not appoint envoys to check on the welfare of his father? Instead, he disowned his family.
Finally, after two decades, Joseph, the ruler, “coincidentally” meets his brothers, the supplicants. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. What does Joseph do? Does he greet his brothers with open arms? Does he confront them and chastise them for old wounds? No. He tests/punishes them for the misdeeds of the past, asks if his father is still alive and cries in private.
This week we learn that Joseph finally relents (and cries) and tells them his true identity. The brothers are wary: What is going to happen next? What is he going to do to us now?
As the story progresses, we learn that the reconciliation is real. Joseph is reunited with his father. He helps his brothers to resettle in Goshen, which has ample food and water. Despite the limitations of distance and the ongoing hurt of past misdeeds, the sons of Jacob are able come to terms with the past and become a whole family — not without problems — but a family again.
Perhaps the unifying theme of Bereshit is not dysfunction and sibling rivalry but the ability of family members to reconcile even after years of strife. With the exception of Cain, all the siblings of Genesis: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers, eventually overcome the pain of the hurts of the past and learn to get along. A message for all of us.
In the next book, Shemot (Exodus), the next generation seems to have learned lessons from the experiences of their ancestors. We read the story of three siblings: Moses, Aaron and Miriam, who function as a cooperative and supportive unit (with some minor setbacks over 40 years) to accomplish what is ultimately best for their family and their people.
Mitch Parker is the rabbi at B’nai Israel Synagogue in West Bloomfield.