Joseph, Slavery and the Long March of Hatred

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 10, 2020 / 24 Kislev 5781

Summary: In this week’s Oasis Songs, I examine what the Joseph story can teach us about discrimination and antisemitism and how that can inform our nation’s conversation about racism.

Our Zoom Based Menorah/Hanukkiah lighting begins tonight, Thursday, December 10, 5:30pm
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What is it that makes some people hated? That makes it easy to discriminate against others? To harbor bigotry and feel you are in the right for doing so?

We’ve been engaged in such behavior for so long as a species that we can actually answer many of those questions. As we reach the beginning of the Joseph story in this week’s Torah reading of Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), some of the factors that give rise to bigotry and violence are carefully delineated in the parsha.

You may recall that Joseph is gifted a special ketonet passim, often translated as a coat of many colors, and less commonly as an ornamented tunic (for musical theater fans, you might know it as the amazing technicolor dreamcoat). Whatever the nature of this striped garment was, it’s a signifier for some of the damaging dynamics that exist in Joseph’s family.

This coat arouses tremendous jealousy in Joseph’s brothers, so much so that they eventually strip him of the coat and throw him in a pit. They then soak the garment in animal blood, and present it to their father Jacob, who incorrectly deduces that Jospeh has been mauled to death by a wild beast.

At first glance, it might appear that Joseph’s brothers’ hatred has been aroused merely because dad got him a nicer present. What family hasn’t experienced the specter of favoritism? Even when parents feel they are being even-handed, it doesn’t always feel that way as a child.

Something far more invidious than simple favoritism is going on, though, and this fancy coat in an age when colored garments were rare and valuable is its portent. We need to recall that Jacob has two wives, Rachel and Leah. The presence of multiple wives was not uncommon in the ancient world, and the Torah repeatedly paints the dangers of such social arrangements. Nothing good comes from this. In our age where polyamory has rebounded, particularly in Portland, the lessons are worth reviewing:

Joseph is Rachel’s son. His brothers are really half brothers, as their mother is Leah. The gift of this ketonet passim states that Rachel and Joseph are better than, and that Leah, the unloved wife—as well as her offspring—are less than. When Joseph dreams that that his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bow down to him, or that the sun, moon and eleven stars bow down to him, this is more than a literary device that foreshadows Joseph’s future in Egypt, when his brothers will literally bow down to him.

Whenever a group is arbitrarily made to feel less than, a series of calamitous events often unfolds. We have a deep-seated need to belong. The powerful experience of ostracism understandably tends to create distrust of authority and awareness that the system is stacked against the group. Those so discriminated against can withdraw in hurt and anger. Simultaneously, the favored group views these responses to the bigotry, which advantages them over the discriminated, unfavorably. They use these responses as proof that the out-group is less intelligent, more dangerous, and inferior in any number of ways. In this manner, they come to justify their discrimination. These patterns are self-reinforcing for both the discriminating and the discrimated parties.

Seen in this light, when Joseph’s brothers toss him into the pit, rather than kill him as they had discussed, they are actually evincing remarkable moral restraint. This is an attempt, however insufficient, to break old patterns and not to let loose with the full rage that discrimination can surface in its victims. Yes, they were wrong to treat their brother so, and they don’t get off the hook because of the discrimination they suffered. Still, anytime a discriminated group is forced into a corner, we owe it to them to foster sufficient ethical imagination to place ourselves in their shoes. Doing the right thing when boxed in demands the highest forms of ethical heroism. It requires a belief that you can overturn inherited destiny.

It would be convenient to view this narrative of Jacob’s family as just that—a portrait of an unhappy family. That’s not the lesson the Torah wants us to learn. We need to recall that Jacob himself grew up in a family of favorites, multiple wives and the divisions that sow the seeds of bigotry. Moreover, these powerful dynamics are not just passed on to his own children, but they directly precipitate the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt. That’s the complex lesson embedded in these Torah narratives.

It’s not too far a stretch to see the roots of antisemitism being formed at this early juncture of our people’s history. We were viewed by the Egyptians as subhuman, different, dangerous. As the rise in American antisemitism demonstrates, the basic categorization of the Jew as a danger to civilization continues unabated to this very day. When we were poor, we were blamed for our poverty. When we prospered, we were blamed for our wealth.

The parallels of our history with the African American experience are vivid. Yes, the shackles of chattel slavery and physical bondage have been removed (though some view incarceration rates as an indication that even this has not been truly realized). Yet the deep patterns of us and them, of favored and disfavored, of advantaged and disadvantaged, remain.

As a community, Neveh Shalom has committed to exercising our own ethical imagination so that we can better understand the root causes of racism, and like in the Joseph story, to perceive what pieces of the puzzle we carry, what assumptions we have not examined. While it has taken longer to launch than I had hoped, this Friday will begin a series of speakers who will join us on a Shabbat evening or morning. Most are African American clergy, but we will also hear from the Hispanic/Latinx community and even from some white clergy who serve very diverse communities. While we still have a couple of gaps to fill in on the calendar, we will get to hear from our neighbors of color once a month in this Unity Shabbat speaker series.

The inaugural session this Friday will be with our long-time friend and interfaith partner, Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church. He will speak during the Friday evening sermon slot, and will remain on our Zoom link after the services to speak directly with you and to address your questions and concerns.

When Pastor Hennessee and I were engaged in planning, he had some hesitancy about joining us during Hanukkah as that is our holiday and he didn’t want to encroach on our celebrations. Yet as we discussed this, the theme of rededicating the Temple resonated with us, for we are also in the process of rededicating our synagogue home to create an ever more robust model of tolerance, inclusion and concern for all of our neighbors.

I hope you will join us this Friday, December 11th. Pastor Hennessee’s theme during our Festival of Lights will be just that—Enlightenment. The service is available from our regular streaming links:

Video Live-Stream – High Definition
Video Live-Stream (Low Res) – If the High Definition doesn’t work well

Chag Urim Sameach—A joyous, light-filled Hanukkah to you,

Rav D

Hanukkah Table Talk

  1. What are some of your earliest memories of Hanukkah?
  2. Who makes the best potato pancakes in your family? If you don’t have an Ashkenazic Jewish background, what Hanukkah food customs did you either grow up with or adopt as an adult?
  3. When have you been an underdog or felt ostracized? How did you respond?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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