24 December 2011

What We Say to One Another

The admission of guilt causes Joseph to week alone; and when he emerges, after this brief emotional interlude, he continues to play the game of chess with his brothers.  Revenge, it seems, continues to feed the mighty river of sibling rivalry among the brothers.

Brought together in the midst of a famine, supplicating themselves for assistance and food from the very brother they left for dead, Joseph knows who they are but they don't realize who he is.  He is thus, to the delight of the reader, able to dangle their confessions on a rope, allowing them to hang over the very pit of despair into which he was once tossed and left for dead.  It should not be lost on us that he asks to detain Shimon, who isn't exactly identified as the brother who leads to conspiracy to feign Joseph's "murder," but is nevertheless a character who hangs over the narrative of Jacob's sons as the leader of the band of vengeful killers of the sons of Shechem, retribution for the rape and capture of their sister Dina.  Horrifying dilemmas in a dangerous region.  Joseph, an assimilated diaspora court Jew in Egypt; Jacob, his father, barely able to contain his sons, dying and fearful of losing his youngest Benjamin, nearing the end in famine ravaged Canaan; and the brothers, unwittingly negotiating with the very brother they've long-presumed dead, pawns in his own game.

The language of the brothers' confession here at this juncture in Genesis 42 mirrors eerily the language of their first attack on Joseph in Genesis 37.

Genesis 37.19:  And they said one to another: 'Behold, this dreamer cometh/וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו:  הִנֵּה, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה--בָּא.

Genesis 42.21:    וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת.  And they said one to another: 'We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.'

וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: And they said to one another.

In the first instance, we have recorded the brothers' mocking tone used as the weapon first wielded against Joseph.  His dreaming, his skill of elevation that brings him down the motivating factor for  his brothers' decision to speak "to one another" and conspire against Joseph.

In the second instance, they speak "to one another" in an admission of guilt, in their taking of responsibility for "the distress of his soul" when he sought them out, only to not be heard.  So that their sin is fundamentally one of neglect their brother's essence, his inner life, his very soul.

That this neglect was expressed in blood, smeared onto his coat in a shocking display of their pain and disdain over not only their brother's uniqueness but their father's celebration of it as well, is a powerful echoing the first sibling rivalry that resulted in murder, that of Cain and Abel.  Fitting, then, that at the first murder--Cain killing Abel--was preceded by a truncated dialogue not recorded by Torah, in Genesis 4.8, "And Cain said to his brother Abel..." but the text hangs empty, an elusive ellipsis that howls for meaning.

At least when people speak, in other words, even words of anger and harshness, there is something to work with and even repent for--not only one generation's sins but those inherited expressions from their familial past; silence, it seems, might be worse.  Repression, let's say, explodes onto future generations, only to eventually be brought into the open, spoken, and, in these weeks of the Joseph cycle, move to reconciliation.

Joseph and his family, therefore, model for us the organizing principle that family can be the laboratory for confrontation of our worst impulses and but most generous acts of forgiveness as well.

What we say to one another, not only once but over a lifetime, become the true narrative of our lives.

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