As we all know, siblings (brothers and sisters) don’t always get along. This has been going on for a long, long time–indeed, since the first brothers and sisters were born.
Let’s see: the first two human brothers were Cain and Abel. They certainly didn’t get along very well. (See Genesis 4)
The first two Hebrew brothers were Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac. They too did not get along very well. (See Genesis 21)
Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob, were twins. They also didn’t get along very well, even before they were born. (See Genesis 25) After buying Esau’s birthright (for a mere bowl of porridge) and cheating Esau out of his special blessing, Jacob was forced to flee for 20 years, with no contact with his family, before finally returning home. Fortunately, Jacob and Esau eventually reconciled. Their relationship was uneasy, but it never again flared up into outright conflict.
Jacob had married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. They too, you won’t be surprised to learn, did not get along very well (see Genesis 29-30), and that hostility continued on into the next generation.
Jacob’s children REALLY didn’t get along very well. Joseph’s older brothers hated him, and treated him badly. When they got the chance, they threw him into a pit and sold him to slave traders heading down to Egypt. He suffered for a long time until finally, as unlikely as it must have seemed, events turned his way and he was appointed second-in-command to Pharoah.
Then, even more unbelievably, Joseph’s older brothers–the ones who’d mocked, scorned, tortured and humiliated him–came before him begging for grain. How he must have longed to do to them what they had done to him.
And indeed, he almost does. He certainly does trick them and plays with their feelings. But he does this not purely out of vindictiveness. Instead, he has a different motive: he wants to see if they have changed. Are they who they always were? If so, well, then they deserve to suffer. But perhaps they have changed ….
In the climactic scene that begins toward the end of last week’s parasha, Joseph tempts his brothers to do exactly what they had done many years before: to abandon a younger brother (this time, Benjamin). As the parasha concludes, he leaves it up to them, and we really don’t know what they will do: Will they abandon Benjamin, demonstrating that they’re as bad as they were years earlier, or have they changed?
We find out at the very beginning of this week’s parasha: “And Judah approached.” Seemingly miraculously, Judah, the older brother who had played a key role in selling Joseph into slavery years before, steps forward and breaks the pattern that has been going on for generations.
“No!” he tells Joseph: “I won’t abandon Benjamin. Take me instead!”
Hearing these words, Joseph is so struck by Judah’s uncharacteristically kind behavior that he can hardly control himself. He bursts into tears, and after shooing the Egyptians out of the room, he reveals himself to his brothers, and they weep together.
What a wonderful testimony to the power of teshuvah/repentance! By abandoning his destructive, competitive behavior with his sibling–by changing, and demonstrating that he had changed–Judah allowed a loving relationship to grow in place of the mistrust and hatred that had previously existed.
We can do the same. If we have brothers or sisters, let’s strive to treat them as Judah came to treat all of his brothers, including Joseph: with self-sacrifice, love and caring.
Rabbi Carl Perkins is the Rabbi at Temple Aliyah, Needham and Schechter alumni parent