Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
With this week’s parasha (Torah portion) of Vayeshev, we read the story of the last big hero: Joseph. I’d like to focus on the event in his life that’s the most difficult to explain or understand — the moment his brothers sold him into slavery. For centuries, our sages have been trying to understand what led them to do this to their brother.
When the brothers see Joseph, according to the text, they say to each other, “Here comes the dreamer.” This quote prompted the Italian commentator Sforno to write:
What they mean by this expression is “The one who tells us about his dreams to make us angry.” They think that Joseph wants to purposefully anger them to provoke them to do a sin so that Joseph would go and tell their father.
This is a fascinating point of view. According to the brothers, Joseph intentionally provokes them, telling them things that will incite their anger — then they’ll snap, and Joseph can tattle on them. It’s an interesting read, but the fact is nothing in the text suggests this is Joseph’s aim. To me, that means his brothers are mistaken.
Sforno doesn’t tell us directly who is responsible for this misunderstanding, but I think the problem here is mutual. On the one hand, we have Joseph, who doesn’t see and realize his words’ effect on his brothers. Still, we also have the brothers – the rest of Jacob’s sons – who are prejudiced and inclined to believe their brother intentionally wants to hurt them.
Though “talking to each other” is one of the first skills we learn as children, learning to truly communicate and understand each other is exceptionally difficult. It requires being both sensitive about how your own words might affect others, and also being open, with no prejudice toward what the people around you might say. We can see from Joseph and his brothers’ story that serious consequences can come from the way we communicate or fail to — especially with those who are close to us.
Every part of life requires good communication, but it’s particularly true in the context of communal work.
Every part of life requires good communication, but it’s particularly true in the context of communal work, where you must interact with so many different types of people. I’ve learned that in my own Jewish community, here in Sofia, Bulgaria. This is where I grew up — physically and professionally — and at the same time, my community has grown in the last three decades.
We needed a good big brother or big sister. Honestly, we were like Joseph — we had our dreams, and we wanted to change the world, but we mostly needed someone to listen to us, not to get upset or dismiss us like Joseph’s brothers did. We needed someone instead to teach us how to make our dreams a reality. That was and still is JDC’s role for our Bulgarian Jewish community: to listen, to mentor, and to make us grow stronger — just like the best kind of big brother or big sister.
This Shabbat, I want to ask us all to try to take on that role — for our own siblings or for someone else. Let’s listen more, help more, and smile more, even when confronted with ideas and dreams that sound strange or confusing. That is how we grow.
Maxim Delchev is the director of education for Shalom, The Organization of Jews in Bulgaria. He serves as a liaison between the Ronald S. Lauder School and the broader Bulgarian Jewish community.