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Torah Reflections

Vayeshev: Seeing the Whole

In this week’s reading Vayeshev, the Torah shifts its focus to the next generation and especially to Jacob’s favorite child, Joseph. In a family of twelve sons from four different mothers, there was bound to be a fair amount of sibling rivalry. But Jacob’s obvious favoritism and Joseph’s (apparent) arrogance certainly exacerbated the situation.

Perhaps in an attempt to create some space between their bratty little sibling and themselves, his brothers went off to pasture the family’s herds. For some unexpressed reason, Jacob decided that it would be a good idea to send Joseph off to check on his brothers:

And he [Jacob] said to him [Joseph], “Please go and see about the shalom of your brothers and the shalom of the flocks and bring word back to me… (Genesis 37:14)

The Hebrew word “shalom” is not as easy to translate as you may think. In addition to “peace”, the word can mean “tranquility”, “well-being”, “entire” or “whole”. With regard to this verse, most translators choose “welfare” or “well-being.”

But in the context of Vayeshev, Jacob’s instruction makes little sense to me. Maybe it’s just because I know what happens, but I don’t see the wisdom in sending Joseph into an outlying and largely uninhabited pastureland to check up on the siblings who envy and despise him.

Vayeshev variations

Apparently, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Przysucha also wondered about Jacob’s intention. His explanation makes use of a variation of the word shalom.  Shelemut also has a number of meanings, but here Simcha Bunim understands it to mean “goodness” or “integrity”:

“Jacob told Joseph to go and behold the shelemut of his brothers, ‘Consider their virtues rather than their shortcomings,’ Jacob said to his son, ‘and you will avoid strife and contention with them.'”

According to this interpretation, Jacob isn’t really asking his son to check up on his siblings. Instead, he’s inviting Joseph to shift his perception of them. It an interesting explanation, but it’s also meant to be advice for the reader. Advice with which I don’t necessarily agree.

There are times when it’s useful to focus on the positive, but the resulting picture is just as fragmentary. So I’d rather translate shelemut not as goodness or integrity, but as wholeness. “See each of your brothers for who they are,” Jacob might be saying. “Stop lumping them together or seeing them as caricatures of themselves. Get to know them and see what happens.”

But sometimes, that’s easier said than done.

Seeing my neighbor as myself

I have a neighbor that I’ve never really met. I don’t know much about her. She is a young mother who seems to be quite protective of her children. So much so that she blocks the entrance to our road while she waits for school bus each morning and afternoon. Also, she still has her Trump sign up six weeks after the election. Obviously, she is an entitled, privileged, and self-absorbed you-know-what, right?

Did I mention that I’ve never met her?

I’ve been trying to remember that, just like me, she wants to find happiness and avoid pain. Just like me, she wants to protect what she loves and push away whatever she hates or fears. Just like me, she is more than the sum of her driving habits and politics. But I’ve had a hard time remembering all of that because I’m relating not to a real person, but to a one-dimensional caricature of my own invention.

It’s time for me to let go of my own arrogance and self-absorption and to see the wholeness of my sister. I’m going to head out to Rumi‘s field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing and meet her there. Fortunately, it’s located just across the street.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed to see the people in your life in their wholeness. May you make space in your heart and mind for them to be exactly who they are and not what you think they are. And may we all, soon and in our day, experience shalom in all its meanings.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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