Thursday, 25 Nov 2010

Written by Rene Pfertzel

How can we deal with anger? Above all when it comes to family affairs? Now, in the place we have reached in Bereshit, the simple patriarchal story has turned to a more complex story of brothers, and all of them will eventually merge into one people. But before this point, the Torah tells us the story of one of them, Joseph, one of the youngest Jacob’s sons. This narrative runs through 13 chapters of Genesis over 50. It is one of the most well-documented characters in the TaNaKh, after Moses and David.

It is the story of a descent, but also the story of an ascent. As Moses after him, Joseph experiences the trials and tribulations of life. He is the beloved son, hated by his brothers who will sell him after having planned to murder him, and he will eventually reach a very high position in the pharaonic court.

It is also the story of a man struggling with his humanity, not really a nice man, sometimes even unpleasant. He is definitely not a role model, at least in the first parashiot.

But it is also a story which has to be read in its entirety, keeping in mind the final events when, as Pharaoh’s PM, Joseph makes himself recognized by his brothers at his court, and everybody forgives each other in a very Hollywood-style happy ending.

It is definitely a story which starts badly and ends well. Our parasha, Va-Yeshev ends with Joseph’s lowest point, his imprisonment. I will stop there, just to keep some material to the next drashot delivers.

How does the story start? Joseph, appearing first at age 17, is the favorite son of his father. According to many commentators, Joseph is by no means blameless. At best one could say that he was naïve; at worst, insensitive and proud. This was pointed long ago by our Sages who said of him that the phrase in verse 37:2 Ve-hu na’ar (“he was a youth”), actually indicates that he acted in a foolish and immature way, “coloring his eyes, curling his hairs, walking with a mincing step” (Gen. Rab. 84:7)… “He brings bad reports of his brothers” (Gen. 37:2).1  Moreover, he does not hesitate to recount his dreams in which he is always the prominent person.

Then this horrifying verse: “And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak in peace to him” (Gen. 37:4).

Why does the Torah say that they could not speak in peace with him, instead of simply saying: they could not speak with him?

Rashi says they did not speak with him at all, while other commentators say they spoke with him resentfully, or amongst themselves in non-peaceful ways against him. Whatever way we read this verse, it is clear that Joseph’s brothers are so worked up emotionally, so overwhelmed by their anger and jealousy that they have lost contact with him. Of course, we can understand their anger. It is never easy to see that one of the siblings is the preferred one. And Jacob never did really hide his preference. But they considered killing him (Gen. 37:20)! They clearly crossed the line, with the exception of two of them, Reuben and Judah.

Thus, they have reached a point at which, they overwhelmed by their emotions, they lost control and planned a terrible act.

This can be a lesson for us, as future rabbis. As Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav once stated: “the one who guards himself from anger will not be ruled over by those who trouble him.”2  Joseph’s brothers gave freedom to their resentment and eventually were ruled by it. They opened the way to their dark side, to jealousy, to anger, and could not overcome it.

The story goes on in the next parashiot and reaches its climax in the last story of Jacob’s sons in Egypt where Joseph recognized them and forgave. But all of them had to go to the rupture point, the turning point of their own crisis. Joseph experienced jail and later on ascent to one of the most prominent positions in Pharaoh’s court. Jacob’s sons had to face famine in their country and had to travel to Egypt in order to seek help. Egypt is really the womb of our people, the place where we gain our identity, most of the time through deep crisis. It is only beyond this point that all of them could find peace again.

A crisis in itself is not a bad thing. It does not mean that it is easy to go through, but it is a step towards us. Joseph’s brothers were stocked in their anger, they could not speak with him le-shalom, “in peace”. But after this crisis, they were again able to bridge the gap they had created.

In my own life. I experienced pain, suffering and separation, as I guess a lot of us did. It is a very common feature of our life experience. But I also had the chance to be able to fill the gap, to renew a broken bond, to recreate the relationship. It took time, I went through crisis, but eventually I could speak le-shalom. It was a real blessing, but it was also hard work.

If we stay overwhelmed by our anger, we will be swallowed by it. The journey to come back, to return, is called teshuvah, one of our fundamental values. The fact that Joseph’s narrative is indeed Israel’s narrative explains why their process is also ours, both individually and collectively,  everywhere and at any time.

Rene Pfertzel
November 2010



1 Cf. Reuven Hammer, Entering Torah: Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009), p. 54.
2 I found this quotation in a d’var torah called “Anger Management,” by Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger.


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.