Vayeshev: The importance of family unity

Vayeshev: The importance of family unity

Congregation Keter Torah, Teaneck, Orthodox

We approach biblical figures with a sense of reverence and awe. However, at times we can learn from their challenges and human shortcomings.

In Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph brings a scathing report regarding his brothers to their father, Jacob. Rashi comments that Joseph’s testimony was not limited to one or two topics but rather “Whatever bad he saw in them, he reported.”

In Sechel Tov on Genesis 44:17, the compilation of midrashim by Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo of Italy (12th century), this incident is identified as the beginning of a cycle of events that leads to a long exile of pain and suffering in Egypt for the Jewish nation.

In his classic work “Meshech Chachama”, commenting on Leviticus 16:30, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk suggests that every contemporary conflict between Jews contains a remnant of this early act of sibling conflict within it. He viewed this contentious relationship as having eternal ramifications.

The Talmud, in Masechet Megillah 16b, attributes the cycle of events that led to Jewish bondage to an act of unintended favoritism displayed by Jacob to Joseph. In fact, Maimonides — in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Inheritance (6:13) — warns that favoring one child over another could lead to similar consequences for a Jewish family.

This theme is expanded upon in the Pesikta Zutra, commenting on Genesis 39, which describes the prophet Hoshea as linking the infighting between the two Jewish kingdoms to the impact of Jacob’s favoritism, leading to the brothers’ jealousy and eventually to the descent into Egypt.

It is clear that our great rabbinic commentaries are asking us to consider the impact of disunity. Beyond looking at specific acts or arguments, we are presented with scenarios of great people who did not consider the long-term consequences of their actions. Much of the latter sections of the Book of Genesis are attempts by the siblings to repair their past missteps. In fact, Avraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Exodus 13:19, sees the attempt at family reconciliation continuing during the time of the exodus from Egypt. Moses was determined to take the remains of Joseph out of Egypt not only to fulfill a promise made to this great man, but to bring to a close the tragic story that started with the brothers throwing Joseph into the pit.

At this time of year, many families are privileged to gather for family reunions during Chanukah. While family members may grow apart and live at great distances from each other, the positive bonds of family unity bring a sense of closeness and peace of mind.

It is important to point out that, to an extent, we are emulating the Hasmonean brothers, who formed a powerful partnership with their father to lead the Jewish people to victory. In the following generations this unity frayed, and these internal conflicts ended the Hasmonean dynasty — with negative consequences to the nation.

It would serve us well to preserve the harmony of the modern Jewish family. While not every relationship is perfect, repair and reconciliation are always possible. In the Avot of Rabbi Natan (26), we are reminded that all interpersonal mitzvot apply to the way we interact with our own family members. Just as one act of discord or dissonance could begin a cycle of doom, one step toward repair can generate unity and greatness.

We approach biblical figures with a sense of reverence and awe. However, at times we can learn from their challenges and human shortcomings.

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