Proximity Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

As Parashat Vayeishev opens, we learn that while Joseph is Jacob’s favorite child – he receives perhaps the most famous gift of all time, the coat of many colors, from his father – he is unpopular among his brothers. He enjoys taunting them with descriptions of his dreams, in which he is superior to them all, and they come to resent him.

One day, Jacob sends Joseph to oversee his brothers as they tend to the flocks. As they see him approaching from afar, they say, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” But as Joseph gets closer, the brothers have second thoughts and decide to spare his life. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic… and cast him into a pit.”

When Joseph is a far distance away, the brothers can imagine committing the most heinous crime. They plot to kill him, picturing how sweet it will be to get rid of their arrogant, favored younger brother who deprives them of their father’s love and attention. But as Joseph approaches, the idea of killing him becomes less abstract and they hesitate. As much as they want him out of their lives, they cannot bring themselves to murder him. Instead, they throw him into the bottom of an empty pit and leave him there so they are forever rid of him.

Studies show that proximity makes an enormous difference in how we act toward people. When people are closer to us, we pay more attention to them and treat them more humanely. One famous study, which was which was conducted in the early 1960s by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, examined obedience to authority figures. The results showed that participants were significantly less likely to administer electric shocks to a victim if they could hear his cries and screams. The rate of shock administration decreased further when participants could see the victim.* The notion that proximity creates empathy was supported by another study about charitable giving. Participants were split into two groups. One group was shown a graph displaying statistics about carnage in a war-torn area. The other group was shown a single photo of a girl accompanied by the story of her tragic circumstances. The donations of the second group were dramatically larger than those of the first; the photo created a feeling of proximity and therefore empathy with the girl.

Toward end of the parasha, many years after Joseph arrives in Egypt, he is imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit. In prison, he helps free one of Pharaoh’s cup-bearers by interpreting his dream. In return, Joseph asks only for one thing: “Think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.” The parasha concludes by stating that once the cup-bearer leaves prison: “He forgot [Joseph].” The story teaches that when the cup-bearer was present with Joseph, he was grateful for his help and willing to reciprocate. However, after leaving prison, when he is no longer with Joseph, he simply forgets. Out of sight (or proximity), out of mind.

Interestingly, the concept that proximity creates awareness is supported by the rules concerning the Hanukkah menorah. The Rabbis of the Talmud mandate that the menorah should be placed no higher than 20 cubits, where it can be seen from the street. They juxtapose this height with the depth of the pit into which Joseph was thrown; it was so deep that the bottom could not be seen. The Rabbis learn the lesson of the importance of proximity from the story of Joseph.

When Hanukkah begins on December 2nd, we will continue this tradition of placing our menorahs in our windows, publicly and prominently, ensuring that the light of the candles can be seen by all, and that the ideals they represent remain in close proximity.

*The electric shocks in this study were fake. If you find this alarming, you’re not alone – the study caused enormous controversy when it was published. A similar study would not pass an ethics review board today.

Deena Gottlieb is JCP’s Student Rabbi.