Vayeshev: We Need Our Sisters and Brothers

Posted on December 16, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

The Torah contains many examples of what I like to call “billboard moments” – moments when the text distills a kernel of life’s wisdom into a pithy statement you would want to put on a billboard to announce to the world.

These include sayings like: “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” or “love your neighbor as yourself,” or “choose life that you and your descendants may live.” One such precious aphorism appears in this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, which tells the story of young Joseph and his relationship with his brothers.

The 11th of the 12 brothers, Joseph was favored by their father in overt and all too obvious ways, including lavishing him with gifts like the infamous coat of many colors. Joseph, for his part, seems to have reveled in his status by playing the role of the bratty little kid who tattled on his brothers to their father. I say, “seems to have” because there is a sense that he acted without guile; that he was just a bit different and that he was just being himself. As the story unfolds it will become clear that he was in fact a prodigy, a brilliant young man, a kind of a Bill Gates of his time, who would do great and momentous things like saving an entire region of the world from the scourge of drought and famine.

His genuineness is revealed in the billboard moment that comes in this parsha. The ten oldest sons are out pasturing the flocks in Shechem when Jacob tells Joseph to go check up on his brothers and report back. Eager to please, Joseph sets out to fulfill this mission, except given the nature of the shepherd’s work, he doesn’t know their exact location. Undeterred, he sets out to find them but fails to do so until he comes upon a certain man who just happens to be in the right place at the right time.

The man asks him, “What are you looking for?” And Joseph answers with words that sound simple and to the point but are in fact profound – words that continue to resonate over the ages:

את אחי אנכי מבקש

“I am looking for my brothers.”

We all need our brothers, our sisters, our family. We need to love and be loved. We need family and friendship and community. We need closeness and warmth and caring. We need to be held and hugged. We need to belong. This is an emotional and psychological imperative for us to feel whole, and it is also deeply spiritual.

In another billboard moment in Gen 2, God says of Adam,

לא טוב היות האדם לבדו

“it is not good for Man to be alone.”

It is not good for us to be isolated. We need companionship. As Martin Buber said, we find ourselves and our humanity in relationship to others. The Talmud sharpens the import of human connection when it says,

״או חברוטא או מיתותא״

“Either friendship, or death.”

It sounds dramatic, but it’s true. A part of us comes alive in the company of others. And a part of us dies when we are cut off from human fellowship. There is a place deep down in our souls that knows this truth and yearns to express it. It says, as Joseph said to that stranger:

את אחותי, את אחי, אני מבקש

I seek my sisters and my brothers

Amidst the flurry of festivity and food, the exchange of gifts and the glow of the candles, let us not fail to remember the most important thing for us to see by the light of the chanukiah, the faces of loved ones, of family and friends whose presence in our lives is the true miracle that banishes the darkness and that saves and sustains us at all times.

Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck