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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
The story of Yosef and his brothers is a profound narrative filled with important messages. It shows us the consequences of sibling rivalry, favouritism, and perhaps most importantly, what happens when communication breaks down. Yaakov’s favouritism towards Yosef is symbolised by the ornate and colourful coat he gives to Yosef as a gift. This of course causes Yosef’s brothers to feel a great deal of animosity towards him, further aggravated by Yosef’s reports to his father about their misdeeds. As Bereishit 37:4 poignantly notes, “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a peaceful word to him.”
Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz points out that the unusual Hebrew phrase “Velo yachlu dabro le-shalom” (“they could not speak a peaceful word to him”) indicates a deep failure of communication. He connects this to the command in Vayikra 19:17, which states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely reprimand your neighbour and not bear sin because of him.” Rambam interprets this in light of interpersonal relationships, emphasising the need to confront and – if there is teshuvah – forgive offences, rather than harbouring silent resentments.
But in our story it is clear that Rambam’s wisdom is not reflected in the story of Yosef and his brothers. If so, as Rabbi Eybeschutz says, they could have simply discussed their resentment and, perhaps, attempted to resolve it. Instead, their silence leads to a tragic chain of events. Yosef’s brothers, consumed by hatred, plot against him, culminating in his being sold into slavery. This ultimately leads to the exile and slavery in Egypt of all the Children of Israel.
The Talmud (Brachot 26b) states, “Ein sichah ela tefillah”, which means that conversation is a form of prayer). In other words, communication is key to both human and Divine relationships. Open dialogue recognises the humanity of others and fosters mutual understanding, even if disagreements remain and the conflict remains unresolved. The story of Yosef and his brothers illustrates this theme, and when all 12 brothers finally reconcile after enduring years of trauma, it is an emotional scene in which we will see them speak openly at last.
Words create; words reveal; words command; words redeem. Judaism is a religion of holy words. For words are the narrow bridge across the abyss between soul and soul, between two human beings, and between humanity and God.
Language is the redemption of solitude, and the mender of broken relationships. However painful it is to speak about our hurt, it is more dangerous not to do so. Yosef and his brothers might have been reconciled early on in their lives, and spared everyone much grief. Revealing pain is the first step to healing pain, and speech is a path to peace. Yosef’s story serves as a reminder of the transformative power of words and communication. The failure of Yosef’s brothers to engage in open dialogue from the outset represents a missed opportunity for reconciliation and understanding. Openly expressing pain and hurt, though undoubtably difficult, is a crucial step towards healing and peace.
Around the Shabbat Table
- Can you relate to a time when you found it challenging to communicate your feelings? Did it impact a relationship? How was that tension resolved?
- When else in the Torah did communication, or lack thereof, play a crucial role in the narrative?
- How might the brothers have used open communication to resolve their conflict with Yosef, if we were to reimagine their story?
Parsha in Passing
In this ‘dreamy’ parsha, we begin the story of Yosef and his 11 brothers. Yosef was born to Yaakov’s favourite wife, Rachel, making him the favourite son as well. This introduces tension within the family from the very beginning.
When Yaakov gives Yosef a beautiful coat as a symbol of his love for him, it ignites a great deal of jealousy from his 10 older brothers. Soon, Yosef begins to dream, and in his prophetic dreams, Yosef imagines 11 sheaves of wheat bowing down to him. On another night, Yosef dreams that the sun, the moon, and 11 stars all bow down to him as well. This further enrages the brothers until, one day, when they are tending to their sheep they devise a plan to kill Yosef.
Reuven suggests that instead they simply throw him into a pit (with the secret plan to come back to rescue him later). Instead, the brothers end up selling Yosef to Ishmaelite slavers.
Yosef is brought down to Egypt, where he begins his work as a servant in Potiphar’s house. But his troubles don’t stop there. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to Yosef, and when Yosef tries to run from her, she accuses him of harassment and Potiphar has him thrown into prison. There, Yosef continues to interpret dreams, including those of the Royal Butler and Baker. Both dreams come true, the Butler is freed, but Yosef remains imprisoned.
Yosef: A well-dressed dreamer whose dreams come true.
Yosef’s brothers: A jealous pack of 10, looking to make things right.
Potiphar: Impressed by his new servant, frustrated by his supposed sins.
Potiphar’s wife: Intrigued by her new servant, frustrated by his moral compass.
The Royal Butler: First a prisoner, then a butler again – all as Yosef predicted. But will he show his gratitude, or will he see Yosef as a fleeting dream?
In this week’s parsha, Rabbi Sacks centres on the fundamental power of our words. Speech can be used to hurt and to heal, and in the case of Yosef and his brothers, even the lack of speech and communication was destructive.
Last week we saw Yaakov’s silence indicate agreement. This week, the brothers choose not to share their resentments (in fact, they are “unable to say a peaceful word to him” and the sibling rivalry festers into something dark and violent.
What Yosef and his brothers lacked was an open channel of communication and a mutual understanding and respect for the other’s experiences.
So much of the tragic narrative of Yosef and, subsequently, the exile of the Jewish people in Egypt, could very well have been avoided if only the power of speech was appreciated and used as it should have been.
Rabbi Sacks says that “Words create; words reveal; words command; words redeem. Judaism is a religion of holy words.”
- How can we use our words “wisely” today?
- What kinds of situations might come up for you where your words are effective?
Let’s play “Three-Word Wonder”.
This is a team-based game where players guess a word or phrase based on only three descriptive words from a teammate.
Players split up into 2 or 3 teams. Each turn, a ‘describer’ from one team is given a word or phrase (from the parsha!) and must think of three distinct, descriptive words to help their team guess the word without using gestures, additional words, or sounds. The guessing team has 30 seconds to guess correctly and earn a point. Let’s see just how easy it is to communicate when words are so limited!
Also inherent in this week’s parsha is the concept of apology. We see the story of Yosef and his brothers contrasted with the surprising story of one of his most stubborn brothers – the strongminded Yehuda – and his encounters with Tamar.
In this tale, Yehuda’s public admission of guilt exemplifies a genuine apology. In the earlier story, Yosef and his brothers antagonise and harm one another, in part due to an absence of apology and forgiveness. While in Yosef’s story, the lack of communication and apology leads to prolonged suffering, Yehuda’s acknowledgement of his wrongdoings demonstrates how essential these acts are in healing and restoring relationships.
So, what are some practical steps we can implement in our everyday relationships when it comes to the power of saying “I’m sorry”?
One way to rectify a situation is to sincerely acknowledge your specific wrongdoing and then actively make amends or an effort to change the behaviour.
If you’re on the receiving end of an apology, practice empathy to try and understand the other’s perspective. Remember Yehuda, who initially messed up with Tamar and then did teshuvah. Even in the case of the brothers and Yosef, there is always the chance to make things right.
Can you think of a time when apologising was particularly easy for you? How about a time when it felt more challenging?
Words fit for a Queen
There are so many ways we can use our words well and wisely, from grand speeches to small thanks yous, from a ‘get-well-soon’ phone call to asking a friend how they are doing after a long day. And using our words to stand up for the people around us is one very important way to use our speech for the good.
Here’s a queen, one who I bet you’ll recognise. She used her voice in the best way possible. Ready to hear her story?
A long time ago, in the ancient kingdom of Shushan, there lived a queen named Esther, but almost nobody knew that Esther was secretly Jewish. Shh, I’m serious! Before you say anything more, not even the king, her husband, knew who she was. (We can trust you, though.)
Also in the palace was the king’s advisor, Haman. The terrible thing was, he absolutely hated all of the Jewish people! Haman was full of jealousy and anger and he decided that he wanted to kill the Jewish people, to rid Shushan of them for good. Then Esther found out about Haman’s evil plan. “I’m the only one who can stop him,” Esther realised. “But how can I do it?”
Esther decided to make a special party for Haman and the king. Right in the middle of their feast, Esther took a deep breath and bravely made the speech that saved the day; “Haman has an evil plan to kill the Jews! I’m Jewish, too!”
Esther knew that the king might not be too happy about her being Jewish either- but she also knew it was worth speaking up for her people. Although it was risky, she used her words to be a hero and stand up for what she believed in.
And guess what? The king wasn’t angry! (Well, at Esther, at least. His reaction to Haman? That’s a different story.) Can you imagine how Esther felt when she revealed who she really was to Haman and the king?
Question: Which two people are described in the Torah by reversing the spelling of their first names?
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:
Noach and Er.
In Bereishit 6:8, the Torah says that Noach found chein, favour, in Hashem’s eyes. Chein is Noach spelled backwards.
In Bereishit 38:7, Yehuda’s firstborn, Er, is said to be ra – evil – in Hashem’s eyes.
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks