Parashat Vayeshev: Speaking with peace

By Rabbi Brad Horwitz

Parashat Vayeshev recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Jacob loved Joseph and favored him over all his other sons. He made him a special ornamental coat, symbolic of this favoritism. Joseph’s brothers became jealous and hateful of Joseph. To make matters worse, Joseph tells his brothers about his two dreams that portrayed him as superior to them. This only causes the brothers to hate him more. This hatred grows and grows, to the point where they plot to kill him, throw him in a pit and end up selling him into slavery to traveling merchants.  

In the course of this story, the Torah states in chapter 27, verse 4 “They hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” Clearly, the brothers had so much anger they could not even find a way to speak to him cordially or in a peaceful way. This is quite a bold statement. We are talking about flesh and blood brothers who relationship was so strained that they could not even find one kind word to share to help deflate tension and hatred in a peaceful way. 

In thinking about this verse I came across a commentary from Rabbi Yonatan Aibshitz, a chief rabbi of Alton, Hamburg in the 18th century. He wrote, “If they [the brothers and Joseph] were to have spoken with one another, they would have made peace. The main deterrent in every dispute is when there is no communication and one side refuses to listen to the other. If mankind knew how to communicate they would see there is no basis for dispute.” Rabbi Aibshitz makes an incredible insight about the nature of human behavior.  Conflict can only be resolved by meaningful dialogue where both parties are active listeners. Unfortunately, people often do a poor job of active listening when attempting to communicate. In order for true peace and reconciliation to happen it is incumbent on both Joseph and his brothers to both communicate and listen, something that did not happen.

Over these past few months in our community and around the nation there has been elevated unrest as a result of the events in Ferguson, New York and many communities. Protests continue, media coverage is high, and government and civil leaders are grappling with the issues and how to address them. My hope and prayer is that people in positions of leadership find a way towards peace and reconciliation, that justice and equality of all prevail. In order to achieve these outcomes, I also hope that we can learn from the mistake of Joseph and his brothers. Only when people find ways to truly participate in meaningful dialogue and listen to the others concerns and feelings will peace be achieved and disputes be resolved. So may it be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Brad Horwitz is Director of  Jewish Engagement and Adult Programs at the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis.