Being our “brother’s keeper” - Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins
The story of Joseph is the final epic in the story of brotherly relations. One of the major themes through the book of Genesis is how brothers get along. The first set of brothers is Cain and Abel, and we all know that Cain kills Abel and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The following stories in Genesis relate the difficulty of sibling relations and rivalries. Noah’s sons are in conflict over how to relate to their father and tribal enmity between survivors of the flood (all humanity) trace back to this instance. The challenges continue between half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael (according to tradition, the historic source for troubles between Arabs and Jews) and this is followed by Yitzchak’s sons, Ya’akov and Esau (whose conflict becomes, according to tradition, the source of difficulty between Christian Europe and the Jewish people). Sibling conflict has long term consequences; it is seen by the tradition as metaphoric of the conflicts between nations and cultures.
These sibling difficulties form the background for the epic of Joseph and his brothers. In last week’s opening episode, Joseph has been sold into slavery by his brothers. He continues his downward descent, being jailed in Egypt after being falsely accused of a crime. There his powers of being a dream interpreter develop. This week’s parasha opens with Pharaoh having dreams that need interpretation – and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, eventually becoming number two to Pharaoh. Into this scene come Joseph’s brothers, who need to come to Egypt because of a famine in the land of Israel.
The dramatic story unfolds with Joseph recognizing his brothers, but they not recognizing him. Because of this imbalance, Joseph is able to create a situation in which he can judge his brother’s behaviour and test their repentance. Many judge Joseph to be cruel, for he maintains a situation in which his father still believes that his favourite son has been killed by a wild beast. However, Joseph, as God’s servant, is working on a larger plan, concerned with brotherly reconciliation.
It takes one more parasha, the story told next week (if you read on a spoiler follows) in which finally Judah steps forward, and states: “I will be a surety for my brother.” Cain’s rhetorical question will be answered affirmatively, yes, you are your brother’s keeper. By extension, just as brotherly conflict symbolised according to tradition larger world conflicts, so too, brotherly reconciliation. For all our cynicism, fear and prejudices, we are called by Torah to remember it’s very first teaching: each human is created in the divine image. The epic story of Joseph and his brothers begs us to begin the work of seeing “another”, not “the other”. In this fractious world, our Torah, our tradition, demands from us the hard work of being our “brother’s keeper” on every level imaginable – for us, for our children, for the future.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025
p: 02 9389 6444
Shabbat, January 16, 2021
3rd of Sh'vat, 5781
Friday, January 15 2021 7:51PM
Motzei Shabbat 8:26PM
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