The Healing Of A Broken Family


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 4:15 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 37:1-40:23
Haftorah: Amos 2:6-3:8
Havdalah: 5:16 p.m. (first Chanukah light)

Every family has a Joseph. The sibling who sees himself as the hated one, the rejected one, perhaps even the forgotten one. The pain can be compounded by being judged a self-manufactured pain, adding to that sense of abandonment.

How does one become “the Joseph?” By developing an outrageous sense of power? Or possessing an intuition that no one wants to listen to? Perhaps he or she was a parent’s favorite, or simply beautiful, or the child of a lost or primary love? The other siblings react to their brother/sister with a sense of injustice, attempting to equal a playing field that they cannot control.

Joseph is the genesis of this biblical paradigm. With the first siblings, Cain and Abel, God intervenes to make the playing field equal. God further intervenes with later siblings, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. But with Joseph and his brothers, God does not intervene.

What can happen when this troubled family, or another, is left to their own devices? A parent may need a favorite. A child needs to be the favorite. It doesn’t matter if a parent has twelve children or two; or even an only child, competing with a parent’s fantasy child.

Joseph’s story is yet more nuanced. Chosenness already began with the mothers. Since his mother, Rachel, was chosen and loved by Jacob [Genesis 29:18, 30], while Rachel’s sister, Leah (the mother of seven), was forced onto Jacob in a deceptive marriage, this choosing dictates the next choosing. We’re told that Jacob not only loves Joseph (not a common verb used to describe Biblical relationships), but loves him more than the other children [Gen. 37:3].

The tensions of choseness are so palatable that the other children do outrageous things, like interfering with his father’s marital bed, as Reuven did, or selling a sibling into slavery, as most of the brothers did. Like many parents whose blind spot is their Joseph, Jacob actually sends Joseph to his demise by suggesting he check on his brothers, shaping a precise pounce. Joseph is so loathed, his brothers do not call him by name. In calling him “the dreamer” [Gen. 37:19] they not only describe Joseph’s personality, but also what he is: The product of a dream, a love affair. And while the brothers’ use of “dreamer” is pejorative, they accurately describe Joseph’s strengths, as siblings’ insults are often a complement. Joseph, “the dreamer,” is the one whose dreams define this family’s reality. In contrast, though, the other 10 sons of Jacob cannot indulge in dreams. Always the pragmatists, they are occupied with trying to earn their father’s love.

In the ultimate story of sibling revenge, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. The sale is rationalized by Judah, who suggests slavery as more pragmatic than murder [Gen. 37:26]. This saves Joseph from death. Joseph then escapes prison through dreams, ascending to political power through his interpretation of dreams. Cut off from home, no longer the chosen child, Joseph begins to heal.

With the dreamer gone, Judah evolves into a stronger moral character. He grows from the shame of his sexual behavior with Tamar, his daughter-in-law Tamar. That experience develops his ability to handle conflict later when facing Joseph in Egypt.

In the dramatic face-off between Judah and Joseph [Gen. 42:18], Judah demonstrates that pride is irrelevant in the face of a family’s survival; sibling rivalry can be a mortal blow, allowing morality to die and for pain to take on eternal life. Judah won’t allow any of this. Speaking with courage and humility, Judah rises above the need to earn Jacob’s love. Once Judah does this, only then can Joseph come forward with his own truth, that he is, in fact, Joseph, their brother.

Hearing Judah — the same Judah who brokered Joseph’s own sale into slavery — now advocate (unaware that he was speaking to Joseph) for their common brother Benjamin, Joseph can finally open his heart in return.

Joseph acts forgivingly, but does not utter the words, I forgive you.

How important are these words?

The Bible shows us that for this family to heal, and its two opposing forces of the dreamer and the pragmatist to coexist, they still need to forgive. Many centuries later, Prophet Ezekiel says that instead of the paradigm of closeness (Joseph as the child, or, later, Judah as the monarch), this family’s descendants need to reconstruct themselves by joining together to become one. “Take a stick and write of Judah … and take another stick and write of Joseph… so that they become one stick [in] your hand” [Ezekiel 37:16-17].

For Ezekiel, familial forgiveness is messianic. 

Temima Goldberg Shulman is an award-winning writer and teacher who lectures about women’s issues and the interplay of literature, philosophy and spirituality.