Friday December 22, 2023 – י׳ טֵבֵת תשפ”ד
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֧ף אֶל־אֶחָ֛יו גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַיִּגָּ֑שׁוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃ (בראישת מה:ד)
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. (Genesis 45:4)
During a time of crisis and desperation, the sons of Yaakov decide to turn to the major world power and appeal for help and support from the top leadership of the Egyptian empire to the South. Soon after the brothers’ arrival, Joseph, as the second in command of the great empire, unveils himself and reveals his true identity as their brother whom they sold into slavery a lifetime ago.
The power of this moment cannot be understated. We read in the previous verses of Joseph’s inability to contain himself as he was overcome with emotion having come face to face with his brothers after years of being separated from them. We have to assume that the brothers experienced shock and disbelief and then relief to learn not only that their long-lost brother was alive, but in a considerable position of power to help them in their time of need.
While the drama of Genesis is a literary masterpiece based on long-held familial bonds, this episode in our people’s narrative teaches us a valuable lesson for this moment.
What is the inherent value and significance of looking at another person or group of people, and before anything else saying to them plainly and simply: “I am your sibling.”
When we Jews experience together times of crisis and we turn to others for help and support, we so often look to our brothers and sisters for comfort, support, and assistance. Joseph did not hold back from his brothers tough demands. Yet, his demands come not as a consequence of his holding political and governmental power, but from his being part of a family.
Over the past week or so, much attention has been dedicated to many among our younger generation of Reform American Jews who have raised their voices in serious critique of the URJ’s position on the Israel-Hamas war and specifically questioning why the URJ leadership has not insisted on a ceasefire along with the release of the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas.
I laid out my argument in detail about why we can’t call for a ceasefire in last week’s column. This week, as we near the end of the book of Genesis and are presented with the stressful example of Joseph confronting his brothers, there is one important question that immediately comes to mind in light of the letters sent to URJ leadership by many young adults who grew up in our movement and base their positions on the war on humanitarian and social justice grounds:
My question is this – Are those in our movement calling for a ceasefire first affirming “I am your brother/sister; now, please hear what I have to say?” When we have serious criticisms to share with one another, we ought to begin by establishing our bonds. Let’s begin by expressing from familial love our criticisms and demands.
Why Does This Matter?
It matters for a few reasons:
- It would be important as a show of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel to say to them first, before articulating your critique of their prosecution of this war: “You are our siblings. We care deeply about you, and we share the devastation you feel from the murders and hostage-taking. The Simchat Torah massacre left us all scarred and traumatized, and we know that you must respond with force to eliminate the threat of Hamas to the people of Israel. We know that there are 129 of our siblings still being held hostage in treacherous conditions, and we have to seek to get them released and home. And, just as we were taught to love you as our siblings, we were also taught to fight for justice for all of God’s creatures. That is why we feel so strongly that the killing of innocent Palestinians must stop…” Though good people and strongly identifying Jews and supporters of Israel will have different ideas about how best to do this, beginning this way, in a sincere manner, would have a much different effect.
- It matters because starting out acknowledging the close bonds we share together as American Jews, it changes your argument from an “Us vs. Them” dynamic. When Joseph says, “I am your brother” he changes the “them” to an “Us.” He fully intended to care for his family. Without that intention and assurance, it is hard for many of us to distinguish between those within the family who critique from anger and disappointment from those in the progressive political space who act from a profoundly different reading of Jewish and Israeli history, many of whom wrongly regard Israel as a puppet state of the United States, and a settler-colonialist entity, and an essentially illegitimate state – for which every act of legitimate Israeli self-defense is regarded as aggression and violence against the powerless.
- Israelis are feeling isolated and alone. They/we are feeling the gas-lighting of the international community that has accused Israel of acting with genocidal intent against the Palestinian people, when it is Hamas that has openly and explicitly expressed its genocidal intent to kill all Jews in repeated actions like those that it committed against Israel on October 7. It is Hamas that continues to shoot rockets almost daily since its initial attack and broke the ceasefire agreement that it negotiated with Israel to release the hostages and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. It is Hamas that has outlined clearly in its charter that its goal is the destruction of the State of Israel. On the other hand, Israel articulated in its Declaration of Independence that it wishes to live with all its neighbors in peace. Hamas has stated clearly the exact opposite.
Back to your message: By stating before you offer a critique of Israel’s positions vis a vis this war and a ceasefire “I am your sibling,” you can say to Israelis, you are not alone, and we North American liberal Jews see you and we love you as our brothers and sisters. We can then argue with each other, like family argues, about tactics, strategy, and Israel’s and Hamas’ conduct in the war.
- I say to all those who have been reaching out to us regarding the URJ’s position I see you and hear you. I feel your pain at this very difficult and unprecedented time in modern Jewish history, and I agree with you on much of what you say. You are my brothers and sisters and I love you. But, I disagree with your approach. Yet, I welcome you to a conversation. I invite you to join me in listening to Israeli AND Palestinian voices – to better inform our perspective. I invite you to come with me to visit Israel (details to follow at a later date), to listen to the stories, and to bear witness to all that has taken place so far. Your voice is important in the Jewish community, and we are in this together.
What is needed now is to say “I am your sibling, I love you and please hear what I am saying.” We must acknowledge that the rising death rates of Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers are of grave and urgent concern to our community. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we in the Reform Movement are part of a big tent with a wide range of political points of view. Also, as a North American religious Jewish organization, we are not positioned to offer military strategy or expertise to Israel’s government and defense forces—it is inappropriate for us to intervene in those decisions or call for a ceasefire with the unified voice of the entirety of the American Reform movement. We are in the position only to say “I am your sibling. I love you, and here’s how this looks and feels to me.”
Today we observe the 10th day of the month of Tevet (Asarah B’Tevet), known in Israel as the “general kaddish day” (Yom haKaddish ha’klalli) to allow the relatives of victims of the Holocaust, and whose yahrtzeits are unknown, to observe the traditional yahrtzeit practices for the deceased, including lighting a memorial candle, and reciting the Kaddish. Just weeks after the worst tragedy to befall our people since the Holocaust, we have a heightened sense of mourning for our people and are searching for our siblings and for the comfort of our people.