Parasha VayesheV, Genesis 37:1—40:23
by Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Lewi
When I was living in Albany, NY a few decades ago, I had a very interesting encounter that left an indelible impression on me. One day I returned home from work. As per my custom at the time, I watched the news while I was unwinding from the toil of my day. There it was- A Breaking Report!” An unidentified man was found deceased, slumped over a desk at his job”. I immediately began to consider the ethereal essence of human existence. Within a few minutes, my fixation of the fragility of life immediately succumbed to astonishment and curiosity as more details of this shocking event emerged.
Many details in the report remain a hazy memory, however, I distinctly recall that the deceased man went undetected for several hours. Moreover, he was discovered in his cubicle on a floor that was heavily populated with coworkers. I took note that he was not sequestered in an office where his presence would be concealed by a door and closed blinds, but in a relatively open space flanked by coworkers . I questioned—how could no one notice? Did he exhibit any signs of distress that went unanswered?
Several scenarios played out in my mind. I imagined his co-workers casually tapping his cubicle as they extended their greetings, failing to notice there was no response. Perhaps, someone brisked by his cubicle saying” I am going to lunch, I’ll be right back”. Yet he never took a mental or physical pause to consider the absence of a response or to see what was right before his eyes. Shocking event indeed! But is it indicative of human propensity to fail to truly see the plight and experience of the other person?
Let’s take an objective and analytical look at two verses in this week’s parasha which seem to suggest the latent motives behind how some people respond to seeing the affliction of others, and their coping strategies.
And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him(Genesis 37:18).
And Joseph came in unto them in the morning, and saw them, and behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his master’s house, saying: ‘Wherefore look ye so sad to-day?’ (Genesis 40:6-7)
Yoseph’s brothers needed to create some emotional and psychic distance in order to execute their plan. “They saw him from afar”. Chizuni(13 Century Commentator) purports that “they went at a distance to eat and to escape the cry of their brother in the pit.” It is logical to think that they would have been extremely conflicted if they did not wedge a barrier between them. They desperately needed an “us against him” mentality to subdue their feelings of guilt and accountability. Their vision of Yoseph was filtered through visceral hatred and disdain. This prevented them from perceiving him as their own flesh. They did not see him as Yoseph, their brother and the son of their father.
From the distance, they could not or would not consider the underlying motives of his perceived immature behavior. Maybe if they looked a little closer, they might have seen a young man in need of guidance and acceptance from his brothers, and who felt isolated from them, due to their father’s overt display of affection towards him. Seeing from a distance was the impetus for Yoseph’s suffering and was the cause of practices that promoted stigmatization, and condoned brutality and abuse of many groups throughout the course of human history.
We see a completely different approach from Yoseph. Although in prison, he did not fail to take interest in the welfare of others. The Torah informs us that he took the initiative to “come unto them,” and sought to understand the cause of the men’s distress. Despite his personal suffering, wrongful incarceration, and alienation from his family, he was able to subdue the urge to pursue self-interest and self-soothing, to be of service to others. He did not allow himself to become inundated with pity or grief. He did not withdraw into his inner world. Unlike Yoseph’s brothers who chose to avert their eyes from the plight of their sibling, which incurred guilt and shame for years, Yoseph chose to embrace the psychological truth that the remedy to suffering caused by self-absorption is to see and service others.
In the age of a burgeoning technology and the growing influence of Artificial Intelligence, genuine human connection is becoming an increasing challenge. These inventions, promoted as facilitators of connection, have in many ways become a great barrier. The warm and friendly exchange of a customer service rep has become lost to mechanical self-check-out and automated services. Opportunity to meet and engage in meaningful dialogue with a passenger on a train or bus is quickly becoming obsolete, as passengers are preoccupied with electronic devices that make other people virtually invisible. Then to add a gruesome Pandemic named Covid, which confined us to our private quarters, and left in its wake great social anxiety and uncomfortability relating to each other in communal or public settings.
Our inability to make human connection, and to see and experience the other person has also infiltrated our homes and personal relationships. Do we make ourselves available when others want to talk? Do we discontinue what we are doing to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present? Do our actions assure them that they are being seen and heard, or do we allow our mind to wander unchecked?
How about the child who seeks our guidance on a matter. Do we give our full attention, or do we may find ourselves trying to balance speaking to them while we attend to other matters. We must ask ourselves, how often do the demands of family and professional life lead us to a pattern of procrastinating when we have the thought to check in on a member of the congregation, community, or our extended family, who might feel isolated or forgotten? The deterioration of so many relationships can be attributed to one party feeling unheard and unseen.
Thursday night was the commencement of Chanukkah. Candles are lit for eight days as a reminder of the Jewish tradition that during the time the temple was being rededicated they had oil sufficient for one day which miraculously extended to eight days. Chanukkah, which means “Rededication,” also marks a very perilous time in history in which the observance of Torah was under the existential threat of assimilation and social conformity to Greek culture. In this bleak time in history, light and hope emerged from Mattitiyahu and his sons. They initiated the battle after seeing a ruler’s attempt to desecrate the altar by sacrificing a pig on it. They saw the deteriorating conditions and their implications and decided to take action. Their courageous fight in defense of Torah lit a spark that inspired many to openly and secretly strive to preserve our sacred way of life. This light has burned in the hearts and homes of Jews for centuries. It represents our unextinguished hope that we can bring light to the world and any bleak situation.
Light does not benefit itself and fire cannot be sustained independently. So, it is with human beings and our connections. When we take time to see others and still hope in them, we strengthen the light within ourselves, and ultimately make the world much brighter.
May this season cause us to see the light in others and ourselves with un-averted eyes!