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The Importance of Good Communication

As we read through the book of Bereshit, the story of our patriarchs is developing, beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob and his twelve sons. Abraham, without knowing where he was going, followed the directions of the Creator to the land of Canaan. He risked everything and placed his faith (his emunah) in the Creator above all else. He not only believed it, but he put it into practice which is how trust (bitachon) is developed. The Creator made several covenants with Abraham, one being the covenant of the parts, Brit Habetarim, in which he received the prophecy that his “descendants would be oppressed and would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years” Ber.15:13. According to our sages the Israelites lived in Egypt for only around 200 years, but this prophecy began at the promise of the birth of Abraham’s son Isaac. 

At that time, Egypt controlled most of this area and our patriarchs had not yet settled in the land.  The title of the parashah is Vayeshev, “And he settled” referring to Jacob, but in truth Jacob never really settled anywhere; rather he travelled from place to place. It means that now he would take time to rest and that is when we turn to the parallel stories of Joseph and Judah. From this story and other narratives, our sages developed the idea of the two types of Mashiach. These only developed much later in our history and is a matter of interpretation. One thing is clear, the Creator is the writer of the script, and He knows what will happen from the beginning to the end. He is letting us know that He will always cover and protect His people Israel, no matter what… and more importantly “it doesn’t depend upon our behavior”. This is in contrast with what our sages teach. They say that everything depends upon Israel; for example, if we would all just observe one Shabbat, then all would go well for us. Our prophets, however, warn us that we would go from bad to worse and suffer the consequences. We can see that happening right now. It’s not that I want to be pessimistic but to give us a very clear message …we are all responsible for what happens in this world, even if we choose to ignore it. As long as we have the capability to speak out, we must do so; we must stand up for what is right. Mishlei 31: 8-9 tells us that we need to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.  Open your mouth for the dumb, for the cause of all who are appointed to destruction”.

In Vayeshev, the Creator shows us how we became slaves in Egypt. The tragic narrative begins with Joseph, Jacob’s eleventh son, born from his favorite wife, Rachel. Here, it is obvious that Joseph was his favorite son. How could a father so openly display preference for one child over another? This is a recipe for disaster. If you were the eldest or the one who had previously felt important, wouldn’t you naturally be jealous and even hate this late comer, this newly appointed favored child? Jacob had a beautiful coat made for Joseph, indicating to all his children that Joseph would be his successor. This goes contrary to the teachings of the Torah that state that the first son of the number one wife, even if she is hated, must receive the inheritance of the firstborn as the behor. Our sages teach us not to show this type of preferential treatment among our children. How could Jacob have been so blind? He knew what happened between him and Esau. 

Let us examine how we can apply these teachings to help us in our lives today. What differentiates us as human beings from the rest of God’s creation is that we have the capability of communicating with one another, yet one of the greatest biggest problems that I have seen as a family counselor is our inability to communicate well or lack of it. One situation that I have seen repeatedly is when one person has been hurt by another but instead of dealing with the issue by speaking to them about it, they held it in their hearts. What happens when you have been hurt but you keep quiet? Our hurt doesn’t disappear, time rarely heals it; rather it grows like a disease within, even though the one who hurt us might not even realize what they did or said. If we would simply approach that person, we could allow them to explain themselves. That would diffuse the entire drama.  

Why didn’t Joseph’s ten brothers approach their father to express their anger about his favoritism? Perhaps it was because of their great respect for him, and this simply wasn’t done at that time. They might have spoken to Joseph and tried to get him to change his attitude. There is great power in healthy communication. How many of us presume to know the intentions of another person even if it is not true? It’s all in our imagination and that bitter root poisons our soul. This happened to Joseph’s brothers to the point that they were ready to kill him. Instead, they sold him and told Jacob that he was killed by a wild animal. They showed him the blood on Joseph’s coat, the coat that was a cause of such animosity. The Torah is showing us a perfect example of “midat keneged midat – measure for measure”. Jacob had deceived his father by putting the skin of a lamb on him to disguise himself as Esau. Now, his brothers would kill a lamb, put its blood on Joseph’s coat, and then lie to Jacob about Joseph’s death. 

Now the parallel story of Judah would be developed. What does Judah have to do with Joseph? Who needed to inherit the right of the behor, the first born?  Reuben, the first-born son of Leah. He lost it because of his affair with Bilhah. Next in line would have been Shimon followed by Levi, but we know that they lost it because of what they did to avenge the rape of Dina in Shechem. Next in line would now be Judah, the fourth son of Leah. The Torah teaches us that there is an order. Although Jacob’s favorite was Joseph, the behor needed to fall to Judah. This created two bechorot from where the idea of the two Mashiachs would later arise, Joseph, the suffering Mashiach and Judah, through King David, the conquering Mashiach. The bottom line of these stories is that first, we need to learn from the mistakes of our elders so that we do not commit them again. Second, when we do not do things in the right way, we create a crisis for which there are consequences. Third, the Creator promised us that He would never abandon Israel, whether we have faith or not, whether we are good or bad, whether we follow the Ten Commandments or not. God gave His word that He will never abandon Israel, but He didn’t say that we would not suffer the consequences for our behavior. 

Israel would fall captive to the Egyptians for many years and when they finally left, they would be free. Every Shabbat, we read the Ten Commandments, the first one being, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery.”  What does it mean to be free from slavery? It means that we have the capability to be ourselves. When we are slaves, we depend solely upon others. Now we are not to depend upon others, “not even to depend upon God as many religions teach us”; He gave us the freedom to depend upon ourselves while we acknowledge Who He is.  The greatest promise of the Creator is that we are the only ones responsible for what happens to us. At the end Joseph was able to bring Israel back, to save them for a time but then Israel would become slaves from which they would need to be set free. My challenge to us is to understand that our life is a process, and we know that there are areas in our lives in which we are our own worst enemy. Some of us have the attitude that no one can change me, I am the way that I am. That is pride. Joseph came from being the highest in his family and descended to the lowest depths in prison. He was elevated and set free when he finally acknowledged who he was. 

Tomorrow night we will celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, a Feast of Dedication. Our community comes from many backgrounds.  This is the time to declare” NO to Assimilation” …. assimilate to what? … to the values of this world.  We must hold fast to the values of the Torah and rid ourselves of the destructive values of this world. Joseph did that; even when he was tempted, even when he was in prison; no matter what circumstances he went through, Joseph held onto the principles and values of his fathers. Let us choose to do the same. Hanukkah Sameach!

Shabbat Shalom


(Adapted from Ranebi’s message Vayeshev 5780)