Seventy Faces of TorahThe Same Body
Parshat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayeshev, we find ourselves positioned as voyeurs, watching a troubling family dynamic unfold. Jacob favors his 17-year-old son, Joseph, over all of his other children. Jacob makes his love quite public by giving his favorite son a multi-colored tunic as a gift. Joseph, for his part, revels in the favoritism and acts as a haughty, button-pushing braggart with his brothers. He freely shares his dreams in which he envisions his brothers (and then his parents) becoming subservient to him – and does so while wearing his “fancy-shmancy” coat. Never mind that his dreams are indeed ultimately realized – his loose-lipped provocation understandably irks his brothers. Eventually, they decide that they can stand him no longer and sell him as a slave, sending him off to Egypt. They lead their father Jacob to think a wild beast has killed him.
It would be easy to think of Joseph as simply being a supercilious young man who deserves this familial excommunication. But it is important to approach our analysis of this situation with compassion, as we should when looking at any interpersonal dynamic. In the first line of the parasha, we are told that Joseph was only seventeen, and a few verses later he is described as a “lad.” Rarely do we get to see a biblical hero so clearly in his adolescence in such three-dimensional form.
In her recent book, The Teenage Brain,” neurologist Frances Jensen reminds us that “teens are not quite firing on all cylinders when it comes to the frontal lobes.” Our frontal lobe is the source of our brain’s executive function, which allows us to plan for the future, be self-aware, act empathically, and make reasoned judgments.
The 16th- century Italian biblical commentator Sforno writes:
The man-child Joseph badmouthed his brothers due to his being still an adolescent, not as mature as he should have been or as his intellect made him appear to be. He was not experienced enough to realize what the ultimate effect of his badmouthing his brothers would turn out to be. (translation from sefaria.org)
Sforno already knew in the 1500s what Jensen’s research has shown, and what every parent of teenagers has learned the hard way. Teens aren’t fully cooked human beings. They may look like adults, and affect the world like adults, but they can also act impulsively and immaturely. Our reaction to their shenanigans is often one of disbelief, based on the incongruence between their adult-like physical appearance, their (often) impressive academic intelligence, and their frustratingly inconsistent levels of emotional intelligence.
Joseph’s brothers were understandably fed up, and their reaction was probably similar to what many family members secretly fantasize about doing with their teens when they behave like….well, teens: “Why do we need this headache in our life? Let’s get rid of him.” But that desire to be rid of Joseph is exactly where the brothers’ real sin lay. They forgot that our family members aren’t separate from ourselves; they are extensions of ourselves. The brothers were fooled by a false perception that family members are totally separate entities.
On arguments with your children, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “If your heart does not function well…you don’t think of cutting it out and throwing it away. You cannot say, ‘You are not my heart! My heart does not behave like that. I will have nothing to do with you anymore!’” (Anger, p. 98)
Similarly, the ancient rabbis taught in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:4). “How can you avoid taking revenge? One should think: If a person were cutting meat and he cuts his hand with the knife, would the injured hand cut the first hand in return?”
Had Joseph’s brothers fully understood that they were part of one family “body”, then perhaps they could have acted out of a deeper sense of compassion, and not out of jealousy or annoyance. If they had internalized that they are extensions of one another, they might have treated him with the care that they would exercise with their own selves. Also, they might have realized that although their teenage brother was making them crazy now, he was not the man that he would eventually become. Perhaps the Torah mentions his age so clearly to remind us that Joseph was not “firing on all cylinders.”
In a few more weeks, we will read in the Torah about how the illusion of separateness gets beautifully shattered for all of Jacob’s sons. As much as they wanted to hold themselves apart from Joseph, it ran against the true nature of the world. When they are reunited, Joseph is an adult and indeed firing on all cylinders, acting with mature judgment and empathy as a wise leader and a loving brother.
We would all be well-served—not only the parents and relatives of teenagers–to learn from the mistakes of Joseph’s brothers: to deal with our family members, our colleagues, our community members, and indeed all people as if we are part of one body, and to remember that people can change and grow. It would surely lead to more compassionate interactions, patience, and even happiness.
Or Mars is the Director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program for The Wexner Foundation and runs the Jewish Meditation Project of Columbus.