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The Art of Listening

  • The Art of Listening

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

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

  1. Do you think that Jacob's outburst in Genesis 42:36 is justified?
  2. Remorse weighs heavily on Joseph's brothers. Is this feeling a negative or positive emotion? Does it help them to grow? If so, how?
  3. 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.

Joe and Hadassah Lieberman: Viceroy of Egypt and Queen of Persia
Davar Acher By: 
Wendy Rapport

The narratives of the Bible are in many ways archetypal stories of the human condition, repeated throughout history. This year, a Jew, Senator Joe Lieberman, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Who could be more suited for this position in history than two people who bear the same names as our only biblical role models to have achieved levels of prominence in non-Jewish governments, namely, Joseph and Esther (whose Hebrew name was Hadassah)? Let's explore these two models with regard to some specific issues raised in both the Tanach texts and in this year's presidential race.

Piety

Joe Lieberman tends to refer to God in his speeches. In Parashat Miketz, the biblical Joseph constantly mentions God. When asked to interpret Pharaoh's dream, Joseph replies: "Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare!" (Genesis 41:16), and in the course of the interpretation provided him by God, he mentions God three times. This piety so impresses Pharaoh and his advisers that Pharaoh chooses Joseph to supervise the food reserve (an ironic parallel to the issue of our budgetary surplus) because of Joseph's relationship with God, and Pharaoh even refers to God twice as Elohim, the same way that Joseph does.

In contrast, God is not mentioned even once in the entire Book of Esther. Mordecai tells her: "Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?" (Esther 4:14), hinting that God directs the course of human events. How different or similar are Esther's and Joseph's approaches? Which one do you think is better suited for a politician in the U.S. today?

Family Values

Joe Lieberman was praised for his frank condemnation of President Clinton's sexual infidelity and dishonesty. In rabbinic literature, Joseph is often referred to as "Joseph the Righteous," having earned this title for refusing the advances of Potiphar's wife, who then falsely accused Joseph, resulting in Potiphar's having him thrown in jail.

There is a parallel story of an attempted rape in the Book of Esther. When Esther revealed to the king Ahasuerus that Haman was plotting to kill the Jews, the king stormed out and returned later only to find "Haman...lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined." (Esther 7:8) Do these two biblical stories serve to warn us that as Jews in a non-Jewish society, we run the risk of having the core of our identities violated?

Assimilation and Intermarriage

Both Joseph and Esther married non-Jews. Although each of them assimilated into the majority culture, they were both forced to confront their roots. When Joseph's brothers arrived in Egypt, they didn't recognize him. He swore by Pharaoh's name (Genesis 42:15) and had called his "firstborn Manasseh, meaning, 'God has made me forget completely...my parental home.'" (Genesis 41:51) Esther, too, hid her Jewish identity, and without Mordecai's prodding, she would probably not have approached the king. On the other hand, each week parents bless their sons, expressing the hope that they will be like Ephraim and Manasseh, who, rabbinic tradition teaches, embraced Judaism even in Egypt. How does a Jew who has attained a position of prominence in the U.S. today affect the identity of other American Jews?

Cycles

Finally, we can speculate about how this year's events might be viewed in the course of Jewish history. There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. The tale of Joseph is a story of such a cycle—from favored son to slave and prisoner to the viceroy of Egypt. While Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, became the site of years of bitter Israelite slavery, it is also the place from which we were redeemed and led out to the Promised Land. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?

At the time of this writing in 2000, Wendy Rapport, RJE, was the director of Family and Religious Education at Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA, and on the board of the National Association of Temple Educators.

12/30/2000
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258