It’s easy to miss the challenges that we don’t have to face. I don’t need elevators to access the train or ramps to access buildings. I don’t worry about my card being declined when I buy groceries for my family.
Our ability to do things easily affects how we express empathy for other people. Sometimes it’s as simple as ignoring a parent struggling to bring their stroller down the subway stairs, and other times our actions contribute to systemic oppression.
Though we might not want to admit it, it’s easy to act callously toward others, ignoring their needs and feelings and focusing on our own. This is especially true in New York City, where the proximity to others makes it necessary to put up our boundaries. But these protections can prevent us from showing empathy. When I put on my headphones and imagine I’m alone on the crowded subway home, it makes my commute pleasant but I don’t notice the person that actually needs my seat or hear the woman being casually harassed further down the car.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we see these same character flaws reflected in Joseph. He is the master of selfishness, and can’t seem to understand how his actions affect other people. Within his family, Joseph’s elevated status colors his interactions with others. His attractiveness comes from his resemblance to his mother and ultimately cements his status as the revered son. Jacob, lost in his naive favoritism, consistently demonstrates his love for Joseph: he requires less manual labor from him, he positions Joseph as a spy over his siblings, and he gives Joseph an ornate coat. When we are first introduced to Joseph, he speaks unfavorably about his siblings. He gives his father negative reports, and he shares dreams of his brothers’ subservience to him, oblivious to his already grossly elevated position in the family. To have a younger brother achieve this level of status is outrageous; for him to anticipate ruling over the entire family, their father included, is simply absurd. He is unable to relate to his brothers because he is unaware of their differences and the privilege afforded to him by both G-d and Jacob.
Then we are blinded by our own elevated status, we enable dysfunction in our lives and in our relationships. But this is human nature. The book of Genesis is the story of a human family. It has not been passed down as a model for good behavior. It is the story of our ancestors who have begotten a great nation, but are unapologetically human and tragically flawed. Joseph’s issues are all too familiar. We see them reflected in ourselves and in the systems that perpetuate oppression. This is what makes us feel so connected to the patriarchs and matriarchs: they are our reflection, passed down from generation to generation.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a Jewish intellectual associated with the renewal movement, imagines the cyclical nature of Jewish life as a spiral. We repeat the same liturgical calendar each year in order to grow. Every celebration, every candle lit on Shabbat is more enlightened than the last. Yet somehow, thousands of years later, we are still able to see ourselves in the texts. Sometimes this may feel like we are stuck in a loop. We can always find a modern equivalent to biblical carnage, the family dysfunction, the cloud of antisemitism. We always feel a little bit like a Joseph, lacking empathy and overflowing with hubris.
But perhaps Joseph’s flaws can give us comfort. The dysfunctional heroes that we see ourselves in are capable of love and reconciliation. If we reflect the negative qualities of Joseph, we should also reflect his capability for greatness and love because these are also within reach. Humanity, demonstrated by the stories we have the opportunity to reflect on each week, is a mix of failure and deliverance. We should relish in this harsh look in the mirror, because where we see tragedy there is also possibility. Although we should confront our privilege and lack of empathy, we’ve been given the tools to interpret and to strive for more. Each time we relate to a Torah portion, we are both blessed and forced to cyclically examine our humanity.