Yosef as a Motif of Familial Intergenerational Trauma: the Young Sibling, Who Because He was the Object of His Father’s Attachment, Becomes the Object of His Older Brothers’ Greed & Hatred.
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar MIndfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Vayeshev (Genesis 37.1-40.23), we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
We begin with Yaveshev with the awareness that this portion may trigger some of us, especially those of us from more immediate traumatic backgrounds or present. It is the lowest point in the behavior of humanity, of our ancestors, that is described in the text. In order to face this history, this behavior, we must approach with boundaries of self-care and self-compassion; not unlike how we had to approach Vayera when Avraham followed the command by God to offer this son, Yitzhak, as a slaughtered offering.
I want to honor as we move into Vaveshev how difficult this parasha/portion can be for many of us; when you really go into it and read it as the text of your ancestor sharing with you, what the Almighty wants you to learn, we recognize and honor how unpleasant and painful this encounter with the text, with the Torah, can be. So, if you have this experience: recognize it; allow it and then over time and practice together, we will investigate it and move to either some form of non-identification or actual more healthy probably at this point would be to move to nurture ourselves.
Putting your hand on your heart: as with the previous Torah portions, there can be challenging stories of our ancestors, and we face our own clinging to wishing that their behavior was different. Struggling with that, even struggling with God’s behavior in the text, all that it comes with us…it’s not as if it goes away, so we honor that we carry this history with us that we attempt to be aware of it and to honor it. And honor here means acceptance and perhaps an embracing: an allowing a full range of embodied experience.
We begin with a reminder of the middah of Responsibility, as there is a lack of balance in this middah throughout this parasha: from Yaakov favoring one son over the others; from Yosef being immature and perhaps boasting about this dreams, unaware that his brothers were not ready to hear these dreams; and from his brothers who plan to murder him, but rather sell him into slavery.
Responsibility: Awareness of consequences of one’s actions and a commitment to bearing the burden of the other, and therefore, not causing harm to others. A lack of responsibility: not seeing the consequences of their behavior.
As Yaakov settles in Chevron with his family, we learn that he favors one of his sons born by his favored wife, Rachel: Yosef. Yosef is 17 years old at the time and his older brothers’ reaction to this favoritism is jealousy. Yaakov loves the child more, he loves Yosef more, and one of the ways that this love gets expressed is through gift-giving to him in front of the rest of Yaakov’s children, the older brothers, while they receive nothing. The gift is a beautiful gown-coat often worn by princesses of kings during that time. The jealousy of the brothers expands to anger, then greed, and finally to hatred as Yosef moves from giving bad reports about them to his father, to wearing the beautiful coat, to sharing his dreams.
While we could spend our time looking at the 17 year-old’s behavior, as many commentators do, I would rather that we do our practice and extend compassion and understanding to Yosef than allow ourselves to be triggered by what many see as his immature, arrogant behavior. What I do believe is present with so many virulent commentaries against Yosef and his behavior is not only a “blaming of the victim”, but also a deep uneasiness and sometimes denial at how he was treated by his brothers. So, those same commentators rather find something wrong with Yosef than face just how immoral and depraved the older brothers’ behavior was.
What is important to focus on now is on Yaakov’s behavior of favoring and loving one son more than the others. Very few classic rabbinic commentators/parshanim find fault with Yaakov’s behavior. Many modern commentators do. For example, Elie Weisel states:
Surely Jacob was the real culprit: he must have been a bad father, a poor teacher. What an idea to favor one child, to give him more gifts, more attention, more love… Did he not know that such behavior would eventually harm the boy he wanted to protect?A bad father?: Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God, p155
Naomi Rosenblatt continues in this blaming vein:
As victim of his own father’s favoritism, Jacob would be expected to be more sensitive to his son’s feelings. He better than anyone, should understand the destructiveness of loving his sons unequally… We can only assume that, like many recent widowers, Jacob is too absorbed in his own grief to notice.Naomi Rosenblatt, Wrestling with Angels, p323
My response to most of these condemning modern commentators is that I am not sure it could have been any other way. Our Biblical ancestors were born into a system, a way of being, that privileges and favors the first-born male child (and men in general). That already created a hierarchy of privilege, blessing, and favoritism. We witness our God, who enters into relationship with our ancestors, favor and privilege one child over another in every generation.
Avraham is to privilege Yitzhak; Yitzhak is forced to privilege Yaakov. Yaakov is the only ancestor and patriarch that God does not intervene necessarily to command him which child he should favor. The same can be said of who Yaakov favors openly in his choice of wives: Rachel. In front of Rachel’s own sister, Leah, and whole family, he favors and privileges her.
Can we truly approach Yaakov with our modern expectations when he was limited to the social location of his time and God? We limit ourselves when we only understand, and perhaps only offer compassion for, Yaakov’s behavior from a personal-psychological one of grief, as Naomi Rosenblatt and other modern commentators do. And how does it serve us to do so? We only cause our own suffering by clinging to a standard of behavior that Yaakov does not and will not meet. What can we practice instead?
And yet, I want to honor that these texts and our ancestors’ behaviors can pain us, especially when we have attachment to certain behavior or outcomes. And Yaakov’s behavior of favoring Yosef pains us because we know the consequence of such behavior. His older brothers planned to murder him because they were ultimately angry at their father, and it is easier to kill the object of this father’s affection than it is to murder their own patriarch. Yet, deceiving their father, Yaakov, into believing that Yosef was devoured by a predator will ultimately cause Yaakov great suffering. Similarly, the brothers’ choice of blood in the deception was from a goat, the same animal Yaakov and his mother, Rivka, used to deceive Yaakov’s father, Yitzhak, into giving Yaakov what was supposed to be Esav’s blessing. Yaakov’s deception of his own father has now come full circle in karmic fashion: just as Yaakov’s father, Yitzhak, lost his relationship with his son, Yaakov, for 20 years, so too will Yaakov lose his relationship with Yosef for many years.
And finally, we look at Yosef’s brothers behavior: how they stripped Yosef of his beautiful coat gifted by his father, Yaakov. How they throw their teenage brother into a pit to leave him there to die of starvation and dehydration, if not be killed by a predator in the pit. Aviva Zornberg teaches:
The concept of “stripping” occurs here for the first time in the biblical texts. It is at root a violent idea, with connotations of flaying skins of animals… Essentially, the desire of the brothers is the absolute destruction of Joseph — of that “excessive” quality in Joseph that is both grace and irritant… (in stripping him of the coat of many colors) they remove that which is additional, unique about Joseph… they tear from him that superlative, individual quality that they most envy.
They cast him into the pit (37:24), Whenever the word cast (hashlacha) is used, it means to a depth of at least twenty cubits, that is, to a depth that, in halachic terms, is beyond eyeview. Joseph, therefore, becomes invisible when he is thrown into the bar (pit)… In the fullest sense, he is forgotten by the world.Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, p267, p291
And then the brothers sat down to eat. This is the saddest line in the whole Torah, the absolute low point. The brothers’ cruelty to Yosef is one of the worst examples of human behavior. And we inherit this history. This story. This trauma. That our ancestors acted in their ability to destroy a life due to greed, hatred, and delusion.
We witness family trauma being perpetuated. The brothers’ growing hatred for Yosef turns into mob mentality, where 9 of the brothers are united in their greed and hatred. And that is what we witness here, where the brothers cause great harm and suffering by attempting to murder Yosef and then ultimately by selling him into slavery. This unwise behavior will lead to intergenerational trauma that will continue on even to the present. This all began with a family unit. Never underestimate what a small family can cause generations later, starting with Avraham, Sarah and their son Yitzhak.
In conclusion, strong inner states can arise in us when doing this Torah study, when engaging in this encounter with our ancestors each week. Strong inner states can be a source of turbulence that affects the calmness of the soul. It is our Insight Mindfulness practice to recognize and accept these states and to know that they are just states that will pass with time; that we need not cling to them or avoid them. It is through our daily sitting mindfulness meditation practice that we develop the capacity to witness our inner states.
This is what we have begun to do right now: develop the capacity for inner distancing through our Torah study. And for those of you reading this, we also develop this capacity together through our sitting meditation practice, which is available in the YouTube video embedded above.
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Shalom Shalom Shalom
We practice and ask ourselves:
- Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
- Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
- What can our ancestors and the Torah teach us?
- And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors, like Yosef and his brothers, so that we can use this wisdom to make sure that we do not cause more harm and suffering?
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