Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 22, 2023 / 10 Tevet 5784
Summary: Last week in Parshat Miketz, the Torah provides a profound recognition of how easy it is for us to compound wrongful actions by simultaneously engaging in a mindset of cruelty. As hostilities in the Middle East continue, this lesson continues to have resonance, even as it offers American Jews a role.
Reading Time: Fourteen minutes
An Evil Hora: How We Dance Around Wrongdoing
In second grade, in the face of injustice, I committed a terrible act of cruelty. It’s an incident that I have shared before, although not in many years, so please forgive me if you recall the story. A new child joined our second-grade class. His name was Zinatalli; when he first arrived, I was as excited as could be, because for the first time, I was no longer the shortest child in my grade. I ran home, anxious to tell my mother this good news. Mom wasn’t always great at staying in the moment; instead of celebrating with me, she wondered if perhaps he was a Cambodian boat person whose growth had been limited to malnourishment. It must have been very difficult for his family and him to flee for their safety to America, finding themselves unable to speak English, but none of that was obvious to me, nor did the school principal or teacher bother explaining that.
With no apparent reason, Zinatalli began throwing oversized wooden blocks at my classmates. Without any context that might have helped me to understand his actions, all I could see was the damage he was causing; at the same time, our teacher did nothing to stop him from hurling those heavy rectangles, squares, and circles. After this had gone on for some time, I had had enough. In an act of righteously angry leadership, I rallied my classmates. We surrounded him, dancing while we threw the bricks back at him.
Even now, I shudder to recall what I instigated. Yet in the face of unacceptable violence, it was also clear that something had to be done to put an end to what Zinatalli was doing. If the adults had done their job, I wouldn’t carry this burden of shame from those days so long ago. While we don’t have any sort of reliable data on how many children engage in acts of cruelty toward their peers, it is hard to imagine that most of us haven’t been on either the giving or receiving side. We all have personal histories that may explain why we acted the bully, yet explanations are not excuses; they merely deepen our understanding, thereby highlighting how difficult it is to respond morally to perceived wrongdoing.
Parshat Miketz offers some keen insights about wrongdoing, cruelty, as well as the best possible spiritual response to cruelty. I want to emphasize that last word, because when violence or wrongdoing occur, we have a moral duty to respond in the realm of action, even as we have the opportunity to learn and grow in both the spiritual and psychological realms. Because Miketz provides insight in these two realms, it provides us guidance in our personal lives, even as it offers us a lens to reflect on the continuing war between Israel and Hamas. Let’s get to it.
Parshat Miketz finds us deep in the Joseph narrative. Joseph has been released from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams; this results in his becoming the viceroy of Egypt, a position that ultimately allows him to test his brothers when they descend to Egypt to purchase grain during the midst of a protracted regional famine. It is a familiar story.
What is important to remember for our purposes is that previously his brothers had thrown him into a pit, selling him into slavery and bondage. They now find themselves before the Viceroy of Egypt. For reasons the Torah does not explicitly explain, Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him.
Joseph wants to know if his brothers, who had acted so immorally with him, endangering his life and reducing him to a kidnapped slave, had changed. Were these people in front of him the same ones who had wantonly thrown him into a pit, or had they matured? To discover the answer, he tests them by accusing them of being spies.
They respond that they are not spies, stating that they are ordinary citizens, “We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” The one who is no more, of course, is Joseph himself.
In order to see if they have any remorse for what they did to him, he responds, “Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain confined, that your words may be put to the test whether there is truth in you. Else, by Pharaoh, you are nothing but spies!”
He then locks them up for three days, after which he softens his terms. Instead of all but one being imprisoned, he inverts the terms, stating, “If you are being honest, let one of your brothers be held in your place of detention, while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” And they did so.
Joseph, to be clear, is recreating a moral situation almost exactly like the initial one in which the 12 brothers sacrificed Joseph because his mere existence threatened their sense of well-being. This entire exchange, it should be noted, requires an interpreter. Joseph feigns that he does not know Hebrew, and the brothers don’t speak Egyptian. Because of this, they feel emboldened to speak freely in front of Joseph, assuming he won’t understand them.
They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”
If you will note, they feel they are being punished not merely because they kidnapped and sold their brother into slavery, but because they did so with a detached sense of cruelty. They lost sight of his humanity.
Yet in the next verse, Reuven expands this from a mere sense of guilt and shame. The Torah records that “Then Reuven spoke up and said to them, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.
To understand Reuven’s comment, it is important to know that in a different section of the Torah, Exodus 21:16, we learn: One who kidnaps another party—whether having sold or still holding the victim—shall be put to death.
In short, from both Reuven and the Torah’s perspectives, the brothers are capitally liable for kidnapping. Yet this is not the entirety of what disturbs them; it was also their cruel indifference.
Ramban comments on this verse. “It is obvious that the brothers now considered their display of cruelty towards Joseph as deserving of a greater punishment than the sale itself since it was their blood-brother who was imploring and prostrating himself before them and they remained unmoved.”
What Ramban is helping us to see is that when we act immorally, there are often multiple issues at play. Some of those actions are outright wrong or illegal. When I led a group of my classmates to hurl wooden blocks back at Zinatalli, I had stepped beyond the bounds of acceptable classroom behavior. Afterwards, when reflecting upon those actions, it is the shame of how I dehumanized Zinatalli that lingers. Shame is not always bad, particularly when it helps us change our behavior. I never threw a block at another child.
Ramban’s insight helps us see that we have culpability for our wrongful actions, both for the emotional states that produce those actions, and for sealing up our hearts. If we want to fully understand the morally complex situations with which we get presented, we must keep all these factors in mind.
This profound recognition seems particularly applicable to the Israel-Gaza War. On the one hand, it would be easy enough to look at how Hamas refuses to take responsibility for the actions of October 7th or for the immense cruelty that accompanied it. History continually presents them with opportunities to see if they have changed, such as Joseph gave to his brothers; sadly, no evolution is visible. As the latest poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research made clear, Gazans are unable to imagine that Hamas has committed war crimes.1 The self-reflection is glaringly lacking.
I am asking each of us to also engage in a more difficult self-assessment. After 100 years of painful coexistence, we are beginning to see Israeli Jews act with cruelty. I am not talking about what the IDF is doing in Gaza to eradicate Hamas. Militaries at war constantly make painful decisions, but does not make those decisions cruel. What concerns me is the increased incidents of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. It is an Israeli government ministry that published a report calling for the permanent population transfer of Gazans into Egypt.2 Let me be clear that while this is not Israeli policy, the mere fact that a serious document was created sends shivers down my spine. It is that Yoav Gallant, the Israeli Defense Minister, called Hamas human animals in the early days of the war.
I am grateful that when a few bad actors on the Israeli side descend into such barbarism, cruelty, and dehumanizing language, they are still consistently called out by Israeli society. From the highest echelons of Israeli society, the IDF, Shin Bet, and Israeli Police chiefs have denounced attacks by settlers against Palestinian villages as “nationalist terror.”3 But after a hundred years in which Palestinians have refused to recognize that Jews also have a legitimate claim to the land, and use that refusal to justify their acts of terror, we Jews are beginning to get infected by a similar soul poison.
Golda Meir famously said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” By and large, that remains the Jewish attitude, the Israeli attitude. But the cracks are beginning to show, so it is worrisome.
I believe that this is where we American Jews can serve a useful purpose because we are spared the moral dilemmas that Israelis face head on. We know that in times of war, it is common to dehumanize the other side: yet it is also dangerous. It is important for us to befriend Israelis, recognize the reality and precariousness of their situation, as well as let them know we love and support them unconditionally. Once we have done that, we can then also be of service and remind them of Joseph’s brothers.
A Jew may need to kill, but it is forbidden for us to embrace cruelty.
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