Vayigash 5774 – Gilayon #828

Family Restoration

Johanan Flusser

I wish to dedicate this dvar torah in memory of my mother, Chana Flusser

who passed away on the eighth day of Hanukkah 5773

having lit the eighth candle the previous evening

            The story of Joseph and his brothers includes two statements made by Joseph that constitute a powerful description of his relationship with his brothers. In the first statement, "I am looking for my brothers", Joseph expresses a longing and a strong desire to find his brothers in all respects. This statement received deep meaning and resonance in the actions taken on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union, with all they encompassed. Now in our parsha, Joseph faces his brothers, removes the mask that he has been wearing, and declares: "I am your brother Joseph" This statement brings to an end Joseph's search for his brothers and family, which at times threatened to end badly. Joseph's story endeavors to teach us that we must do everything we can to reach an encounter with others in general, and within the family in particular, and to realize it within our lifetime. An encounter of restoration, an encounter of forgiveness, and sometimes even one of love, although beginning with hatred and misunderstanding. It is for good reason that Uriel Simon sees the story of Joseph and his brothers as a "story of transformation".

            Interestingly, most of the commentators do not relate to Joseph's second statement, "I am your brother Joseph", although this point can be seen as the height of the story of Joseph and his brothers. One of the intriguing questions in the story of Joseph and his brothers is whether it can be grasped as a family story where control, jealousy, revenge, hatred, and love are consciously and purposefully controlled by the family members, including the father, or whether this is a multigenerational family story and subconscious family conduct motivated by personal and familial trials and behavior patterns passed on from previous generations. Then again, perhaps it is a mix of consciousness together with family conduct conveyed between the generations. The Torah explicitly cites the reasons for the hatred and revenge evident in the stories of the forefathers, whether due to assumption of the birthright or to preferring one son over the other.

           Isaac Arama, author of "Sefer Ha'akeda", wrote about the complex relationship between Jacob and Joseph:

           The first question is that no person in the land would commit such a bad and offensive sin that has no benefit, because what was his crime and sin in being loved by his father as is usual with the youngest son, and he wouldn't even have imagined this in his dreams when asleep in bed… and there is a question, one that resembles other great questions, why is no explicit penalty for this sin evident in the Torah, as would have been required?

            From his words it emerges that each of the family figures is responsible for his or her actions and behavior and must pay a price for this behavior. He clarifies that human behavior is not only conscious but rather also aimed at achieving benefits and may be negatively motivated. Another angle concerning the story of Joseph and his brothers may be seen in the novel "Joseph and his brothers" by Thomas Mann,1 one of the greatest literary works written about this complex family story. Nechama Leibowitz refers to Mann's book and says that Mann relates to the forefathers not only as individuals with a personal psychological story that motivates their actions and as having certain personal qualities, rather as people who have a special designation and who transfer and bequeath this designation to the next generations. Nechama Leibowitz writes:

           Thomas Mann cannot make do with a regular human psychological explanation of their actions, rather he is forced, following his outlook, to ascribe to their operations also and primarily weighty supra-personal motives, motives that derive from their perception that they have been designated "forefathers" and that they bear the blessing and their selection as those who were chosen for the purpose of this designation. Therefore, the brothers' hatred of Joseph is explicated not only by means of regular human motivations occasioned by the jealousy of the elders for the youngest who receives the love of his father, by hatred of he who spoke ill of them, by rage towards he who dreams arrogant dreams – rather also by the deep fear that the birthright and the blessing will be awarded to him and only to him, and they and their sons will not be included among the Israelite congregation. This is also how he interprets the awarding of the multicolored coat, which is not only a sign of Jacob's love for his son and of his preference for him, rather has graver meaning.

            Maurice Samuel in his book "Some people of the book"2 does not accept Thomas Mann's interpretation of the story of Joseph and his brothers and objects to Mann's grasp of the family story in our parsha: "Even though he recognizes the fact that the birthright is at the heart of the nation's meaning and history, [he] continues the process of screening Jacob's sons! From his words it is apparent that Joseph and his brothers fought over ownership of the blessing, as did Jacob and Esau, and Isaac and Ishmael before them. As he sees it, Judah became the bearer of the cardinal blessing and the others received routine blessings. If so, why did the screening process not continue for all time, with only one person chosen in each generation and everyone else discarded?".

            Samuel, in effect, does not accept Thomas Mann's approach to what we now recognize as a charged issue passed among the generations, one that no effort was made to resolve in previous generations. Perhaps Joseph's greatness was indeed in truly restoring his relationship with his brothers. Joseph, who was harassed by his brothers and maybe even repaid them through his actions when they came to him for a solution to the hunger in the region, broke down and was overcome by his feelings occasioned by the renewed encounter with his brothers, and particularly when seeing Benjamin. In this critical moment, Joseph had the opportunity to act to restore his relationship with his brothers and family. This restoration puts an end to the chain of events in the previous generations, where complex and visceral family stories are evident.

            In recent years I have been deeply exposed to many families that encompass members with special and complex needs. These families are mostly in an extreme state of distress. In order to understand the situation and the place of these families, professionals must be deeply acquainted not only with the special person rather primarily with the parents and with the entire family. We must reach a thorough understanding of the intra-familial relations, with their crucial effect on each family member and particularly on the person with special needs. Preconditions exist for successful encounters and therapy, whether with students of mainstream schools or with young people and adults with special needs. First, as therapists and as education and welfare professionals we must reach a point in which we do not judge the other but rather see him as equal to us and to all people created in the image of God, unrelated to his limitations. In the encounter we must step out of our shoes for a while, as Moses removed his shoes to convene with the Holy One blessed be He. In the second stage, as educators and therapists we must do our best to temporarily enter the other's shoes from a deeply conscious perspective, and then we must return to our own shoes. In this conscious act, a true encounter is formed with the person facing us, and at the same time in this process we may undergo an encounter with our own self. This is not a simple procedure but it can undoubtedly facilitate an unmediated encounter where each side discovers in himself previously unknown personality and emotional components, a process that might lead to understanding and meaningful change in the life of all involved, as perhaps occurred in the encounter between Joseph and his brothers.

  1. Thomas Mann: Joseph and his brothers. Translated into Hebrew by Avi Shaul, Sifriat Poalim, Merhavia 1957, volumes I-II.
  2. Maurice Samuel: Some people of the book. Translated into Hebrew by Naftali Golan, Massada 1960, pp. 181-182.

Johanan Flusser established and manages the Heyanut Center that serves as a case manager in all areas of life for families that include members with special needs.

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