Although the major voices in this week's Torah portion, Mikeitz, belong to Joseph and his brothers, my attention was caught by the voice of Jacob. In Genesis 42:36, Jacob complains to his sons: "It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!" Where is the voice of Israel who emerged from the divine wrestling match a changed individual? This self-centered response is more in keeping with the old Jacob. Children, even grown children, need a parent's advice, sympathy, and understanding. Rather than this expression of scorn and condemnation on Jacob's part, it seems that some sense of a shared burden would have been more appropriate.
It's not an easy thing to be a good listener. You have to overcome the tendency to think that it's all about you. Humility plays a major part in sustaining a life dialogue. The ability to understand the needs of your counterpart is essential. The sons of Jacob are experiencing their own sensations of pain, fear, and regret. Yet Jacob's anger and self-centeredness elicit only further harmful pronouncements in Genesis 42:38: "My son must not go down with you for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief."
While it is true that age often increases egocentric behavior, members of the younger generations are often just as guilty. When you appear immortal in your own eyes, everything is always about you. Witness Joseph's insensitivity as he relates his dreams to his brothers.
We would do well to remind Jacob that we never stop being parents no matter what our children do. The conviction that bad things happen only to him impairs his ability to respond with the love and respect of a parent reaching out to his children. The prophet Malachi wrote: "[God] shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.?" (3:24)
After this initial negative outburst, Jacob begins to speak in a pragmatic manner: "Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be so, do this.?'" (Genesis 43:11) Note that this is the voice of Israel, not Jacob—the Israel who was changed by the struggle with the stranger. The patriarch now seems to accept his fate with greater equanimity: "As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved." (Genesis 43:14)
This narrative indicates to me that sometimes we must first use the voice of Jacob in order to get to the voice of Israel. It reminds us all that our parenting and listening skills are works in progress.
Questions for Discussion
- Do you think that Jacob's outburst in Genesis 42:36 is justified?
- Remorse weighs heavily on Joseph's brothers. Is this feeling a negative or positive emotion? Does it help them to grow? If so, how?
- When dealing with elderly parents and their insecurities, how can we reassure them? What can we do to allay their anxieties?
Rabbi Robert L. Rozenberg is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY.