On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayeishev: Losing and Finding Connection

In Parashat Vayeishev, Joseph is asked by his father to go check on the “shalom”—the peace, or wholeness—of his brothers. Those familiar with Joseph’s story know that he had differences with his brothers even though they had the familial connection. We’re all part of something larger—the world, an age cohort, maybe the Jewish community—and at times, we have major differences with those in our communities. Should we always look for commonalities? Rabbi Jacobs gives his take in the episode of On the Other Hand.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us a bit about Parashat Vayeishev, and he asks: how do we really see others?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayeishev from the Book of Genesis. We begin the four parashiyot that take us through a long and dramatic narrative of Joseph and his brothers. And it starts off innocently enough, with this very precocious young man, 17 years old, our Joseph, and he's already kind of endearing himself to his brothers with his grand visions of grandeur. And his father sends them out to check on his brothers, but actually says it in a very particular way says "lech na, re'ei et shalom achicha." Go and check the shalom, the peace, the holiness, of your brothers. And on some level, it's a pretty fundamental mission that he's sent on, which is don't just go report and tattle-tale on what they're doing, or what they might need, but go and see them and see if it's well with them and bring back a report of their shalom.

And I want to add in this podcast, think about how we are part of something larger. We're part of a world, we're part of, maybe, an age cohort. But I'd like to think of us as part of a people, the Jewish people, an incredible collective. And one of the things that's completely obvious is that we come in all shapes and sizes and beliefs and practices -- and some are very traditional, and some are not traditional at all, and very often we're like Joseph his brothers. We're actually not on the same page. And there are both rivalries and sometimes even sharper and more painful things. So, think of yourself as a Joseph being sent out -- and maybe you were sent to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community nearby, or maybe to a very, very interesting cultural community, doing, you know, Jewish film. How do we come to appreciate the differences of who we are, and in those differences still find some commonality? And of course, you know, I think that some of that challenge is also across the ocean from North America to Israel, right? Think about all the different types that populate contemporary Israelis, from those who are very secular in Tel Aviv to, maybe, the settlers who are somewhere in the West Bank, to the ultra-Orthodox who are in B'nei Brak, to the new immigrant who is in Dimona. Like, how do we -- again not just with siblings, but with cousins and the wide extended family of the Jewish people? Are we part of a people, or are we really very different and no longer sensing that, in spite of it all, we're somehow connected?

And when Joseph meets this this kind of no-name who's standing in the middle of the field asking him who he's looking for, Joseph answers "et achai anochi mevakesh." I'm looking, I'm seeking, I'm longing for a connection to my siblings. And I think that for many of us, we've actually stopped seeking and longing for and looking for those connections, and we're just in our own small circle of family and friends. And I know for me, that, you know, the feeling of being part of something larger, again, doesn't mean all the people [who] are part of this larger collective think the way I do, believe the way I do, practice the way that I do, vote the way that I do. I still feel like there's something undergirding us that is both powerful and nourishing. There's a little bit further into the narrative, where the Torah tells us that his brothers saw Joseph -- "vayir'u oto' mei'rachok" -- they saw him from a distance. And I just got to challenge myself and all of us that when we are looking at others from a distance, we're probably actually not seeing very much that's accurate, right? I mean, I'm a Reform rabbi, so there are people who they've got a whole bucket of assumptions and maybe stereotypes that they bring to us. You know, I was with some very traditional people a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, they were trying to be sensitive, and one was talking about challah, and sort of said, "You know what challah is?" And honestly, I just smiled. It'd be better to laugh than to go, "Are you kidding me?" I mean, we're Reform Jews, but we're Jews, and we have so much that's in common. So how do we not see our siblings from a distance? How do we get close enough to know them and for them to know us? I think also of Israelis in that same way. I mean, Israelis have all these assumptions about North America. You know, I hear them tell me that basically all of North America is about to assimilate out of existence and that Jewish life is is on its last leg. And I say, "Really, do you know that or are you imagining that? Why don't you come visit us and see not from afar but from up close, see who we are and the people who are here in North America." And imagining, you know, what all Israelis think or what some Israelis think and, you know, when you get on a Birthright trip or you've traveled with your family or with your community to actually -- and particularly to put yourself in proximity to people who are actually quite different, maybe from, Ethiopia and Israel, or maybe people who come from the former Soviet Union. I mean, how do we, with sometimes the challenge of cultural differences, put ourselves in the close up and allow them to see us up close?

We had an opportunity to do that a couple of weeks ago with a group of visiting journalists from Israel. And you know, I thought it was really challenging, as they were trying to make sense out of the institutions and going to a Reform synagogue and checking their baggage at the door. I don't mean their security baggage, I mean their conceptual baggage. And we're thinking a lot about how do we construct a sense of peoplehood, a sense of being part of the collective. And I saw, you know, in the post-Pittsburgh murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, that all of a sudden, we were doing it for a few minutes, we were doing a much better job. I'm just feeling the pain of what this meant for all of us. And it was a Conservative synagogue, but frankly it could have been any one of our synagogues. And not the negative or the hostility and the bigotry and the hatred and the violence is what bounds us together. But frankly, sometimes that is a piece of it. I'd rather think that there are the positives. You know how we can be present for one another, and to build some bridges conceptually.

So, to think about, you know, the someone who's the furthest from where you are -- think of who that is. And could I have a conversation with that person? In my line of work, I end up sitting on a plane next to that person almost all the time, and just beginning a conversation where they kind of look at -- you know, I sit down next to an ultra-Orthodox man on my flight to Israel, and he looks at my books that I'm [reading], my notes, and my keyboard and he says, "Oh are you interested in Jewish things?" Like... I say, "Yes." And I don't want to be obnoxious but, like, I look at him and say, "Oh, are you interested in Jewish things? You got a book of Psalms in your hand that's open." But how can that moment be a moment of -- actually, we're probably two people that would not have met otherwise, but here we are. And can I somehow share a bit of my life, maybe my Jewish life, maybe my, you know, my community, and to be genuinely curious and open -- and then I'm not looking from afar, I'm looking from right up close. And Joseph and his brothers -- I don't want to tell you how this story ends up. They are reconnected. But I think with our Jewish people, I am not so certain that we're on a path to reconnect all of the disconnects. And I don't know that all of us are actually seeking that. And it's not just those people who are very different not seeking it from us. How do we both make a priority and build in the possibility that we would both understand those members of the Jewish people very different from us, and we draw strength from them and they from us. And across the ocean from Israel that, again, we're not just North Americans, we're this very unique, vibrant, and large Jewish community. And Israel is something extraordinary and just quite inspiring, and in so many ways. So, here's the homework: build that wider network. Take a chance. Build a bridge. Open a conversation. Test assumptions. Check your baggage. What could we be at the end of that exploration? We could be bigger, closer, more loving, more ready to stand with and for. And I've got to say, in this very complicated little moment we're living in, that would be a blessing.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!