Vayigash: Do Not Quarrel Along The Way

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash 

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” (Bereshit/Genesis 45:24)

It’s been a tough week in the Northeast. (I assume throughout the country as well.) The local paper has had front-page coverage related to last week’s Newtown murders, as one of the victims had family here in Dutchess County, and of course the broadcast, print and internet media have covered every aspect of the tragedy.

It seems that every pundit, columnist, politician, member of the clergy, organizational spokesperson or other commentator has definite ideas about what should be done next, and of course I agree that we must discuss our nation’s policies, laws, and practices in order to reduce violence at all levels. Yet to me, much of the infinite commentary has a tone of too much certainty to it; the problem is exceedingly complex, and no one simple solution will address all aspects of violence in America. Not only that, but I suspect many of the pronouncements about What We Must Do avoid introspection about how each of us participates in a culture that often valorizes violence and offers inadequate help to many of our citizens.

The tendency to blame others is hardly new. In this week’s Torah portion, after Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them back to their father Yaakov with the astounding news that Yosef is alive and second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. As the brothers set off for the land of Israel, Yosef warns them “not to be quarrelsome along the way.” (See the full verse up above.)

Our friend Rashi offers no less than three explanations of Yosef’s warning, but in the end seems to endorse a straightforward but psychologically acute interpretation: the brothers were ashamed of what they had done to Yosef many years earlier, and out of that shame would tend to blame each other for causing the hatred and division in the family. According to Rashi, each brother was likely to say: “because of you he was sold- you spoke evil of him and caused us to hate him.”

The truth, of course, is that all of the brothers were responsible for what happened to Yosef. Perhaps Yehudah deserves a bit more condemnation than the others for coming up with the plan to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, and perhaps Reuven deserves a bit of praise for attempting to slow down the scheme so he can rescue Yosef later, but still- not one of them said, “this is wrong.” Not one of them said, “I will stop you from doing this.” Not one of them said, “think of the pain this will cause our father.” Those who acted, and those who failed to speak out, are both (perhaps not equally) responsible for the outcome.

Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the ancient prophets spoke to the moral state of the nation, with the belief that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” That, to me, encompasses the spirit in which we should reflect upon the Newtown murders- not seeking to find a scapegoat but looking within, as the prophets asked Israel to do, to find our own complicity, or at least passivity when social forces move towards the detriment of all.

Please note- I’m all in favor of more gun control, and I’m proud that the Jewish community, with the Conservative movement a key coalition partner, has endorse petitions like this, which I encourage you to sign. Yet perhaps the ancient prophets might also challenge us to look within and ask ourselves a different set of questions:

– do I support with my dollars entertainment which glorifies brutality and violence?

– have I supported politicians and leaders who have made reducing violence a priority?

– am I willing to share in the financial burden of offering greater support services to those with mental illness?

– do I turn away from the violence in my own city or towns because it’s limited to certain neighborhoods or communities?

– am I willing to live in a society where the media is encouraged not to focus on killers and murderers, thus denying them the fame and putative “glory” that some of them seek?

– have I listened to people who may come to different conclusions about the proper balance of freedom and security in our society? do I understand why others hold radically different views?

– do I stand against violence in other countries in which my own society plays a part?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may think that one or more of these questions has no bearing on the current debate. These questions are not my point. Rather, like Yosef encouraging his brothers not to blame each other out of their shame and pain, I think part of a spiritually mature response to a terrible act is for each of us to look within, seeking to take personal responsibility for our society before casting all the blame in one direction or another. That is harder, and less satisfying than identifying villains, but it is the surer way forward, and I believe indispensable to our healing. Let us keep in our hearts and prayers the victims not only Newtown, but across our land and across the world, and each of us seek to do our part in changing what we can.

Shabbat Shalom,



1 Comment »

  1. Moshe Edelman said

    Kvod HaRav
    Once again you hit the nail on the head(proverbially). Good drash and excellent insight into the parsha. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
    Moshe Edelman

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