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Home » Education, Family Life, Vayeshev

Vayeshev: My Brother’s Keeper

Submitted by on November 24, 2018 – 9:43 pmNo Comment | 2,387 views

Cain famously asked, “am I my brother’s keeper?” History has not taken kindly to Cain and has responded with a resounding yes, you are your brother’s keeper. But Cain had done ill by Abel. What if it is the reverse, suppose your brother does ill by you, are you still expected to be your brother’s keeper?

Last week we learned that Jacob was very concerned that Esau might want to befriend him and act like his brother. The danger in that would be that Esau might act like a friend, and a well-meaning one, but in the process exert pressure on Jacob to compromise on his principles and values. Last week we explained that sometimes a friend can be far more dangerous than an enemy and that Jacob was right to fear Esau.

In fact, when Esau offered to join Jacob in his journey, Jacob demurred and suggested that Esau travel on his own. But was Jacob right to make that choice? Should Jacob perhaps have acted as his brother’s keeper and taken the opportunity to befriend Esau and influence him for the better?

On the surface, the answer would seem to be no. Jacob was in the right, otherwise, Jacob would have been punished for his failure. But further examination yields a different response because in the larger scheme we find that Jacob was indeed punished.

What’s Wrong?

The Torah tells us that Jacob sojourned in the land of his father’s dwellings,[1] which means Israel. After twenty-two plus years of banishment, Jacob had finally returned to his father’s home. Yet, Jacob only got some nine years of rest.[2] Within this short timeframe, Joseph had incurred the wrath of his brothers and was sold into slavery. After suffering from Laban, and later Esau, Jacob found himself with new trouble, the loss of his favorite son Joseph. Why was Jacob condemned to so much suffering?

Rashi, the famed eleventh-century biblical commentator, provides an insight: “When Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them, but they seek also to dwell in tranquility in this world?”[3]

On the face of it, this is difficult to comprehend. What is so terrible about wanting to live well in this world as well as in the world to come?

Moreover, when Esau threatened to attack, Jacob pleaded with G-d for deliverance and invoked G-d’s promise of protection. “And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you.”[4] Now this was not a promise for goodness in the world to come. It referred squarely to goodness in this world, otherwise, Jacob would not have invoked it for protection against Esau. If G-d promised Jacob a good life in this world, there was surely nothing wrong with Jacob desiring it. Why then did the troubles of Joseph spring upon him?

Enter Joseph

There was one critical difference between Jacob at the time of Esau’s attack and Jacob eleven years later. The difference is that Joseph had grown up and Jacob had taught him all the Torah he knew. [5]

What is the significance of Joseph growing up?

Rashi, our favorite commentator, explained it with a parable: “The camels of a flax dealer entered a town, laden with flax. The blacksmith wondered, “Where will all this flax go?” One clever fellow replied, “One spark from your bellows, and it will all burn down.” Similarly, Jacob saw all the chieftains of Esau’s family and wondered, “who can conquer them all?” Thus, the Torah states (Genesis 37:1) “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph,” and it is written: “And the house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau shall become stubble” (Obadiah 1:18). One spark that emerges from Joseph, can destroy and consume them all.[6]

Jacob could not measure up against Esau, but Joseph could. Had Jacob befriended Esau back when Joseph was a mere child, he might not have succeeded in exercising influencing over Esau. In fact, Jacob was correct in fearing that Esau might have exercised influenced over Jacob. But Joseph was a whole different story. Joseph was inoculated against negative influence. Of all the brothers, only Joseph was able to descend to Egypt, a place of moral depravity, and remain righteous.

Joseph was incorruptible. Egypt was unable to corrupt him, and neither would Esau. Jacob failed to realize the implications of this truth. Now that Joseph was no longer a child, now that Jacob had personally trained Joseph, and taught him everything he knew, Jacob should have dispatched Joseph to inspire Esau to change his ways.

After all, Esau was no stranger to Judaism. He had grown up alongside Jacob in the home of Isaac and Rebecca. Surely, there was a spark in Esau that could be ignited, that would turn all his negative energy to stubble, and that would turn Esau into a powerful force for the good. Furthermore, Esau was Jacob’s brother, and yes, no matter what our brother does to us, we are our brother’s keeper.

If our brother poses a danger to us, we might have a reason to avoid him. But Esau posed no danger to Joseph, and thus Jacob should have dispatched Joseph to rehabilitate Esau. He didn’t because he wanted a life of goodness, a life or moral and upstanding behavior, and he was afraid that Esau would corrupt that. Eleven years earlier that was a valid fear, but now, with Joseph in the picture, it was no longer valid.

Had Joseph been dispatched to Esau, Joseph would have been away from home, and the troubles with his brothers would never have occurred. Instead, Jacob kept Joseph at home, and sure enough, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him.

Brother’s Keeper

This tale carries a powerful lesson for us all. We are our brother’s keeper. If you know a Jew whose behavior is not in keeping with the values of our heritage, don’t stand idly by. Don’t treat your sibling like a stranger. Be your sister’s or brother’s keeper. Reach out to your fellow in love and teach what you know. Invite them, include them, involve them, and find a path to their hearts.

Don’t be like Jacob who was too afraid of his own brother. Be like Joseph, who ventured into dangerous territory, and when asked what he was seeking, his answer was simply, my brothers.”[7]

And when we do, Obadiah’s prophecy will come true at which time Jacob will live in goodness both in this world and in the world to come.[8] [9]

[1] Genesis 37:1.

[2] Joseph was six when Jacob left Laban’s home and faced down Esau. Jacob journeyed for two years after that, which means that Joseph was eight when Jacob settled in his father’s dwelling place. Nine years later, when Joseph was seventeen, the troubles with his brothers reached a boiling point, and Joseph was sold into slavery.

[3] Rashi on Genesis 37:2.

[4] Genesis 32:13.

[5] Gur Aryeh on Genesis, 43:30.

[6] Rashi on Genesis, 37:1.

[7] Genesis 37:15-16.

[8] Toras Menachem, 5743:2, p. 632.

[9] This essay is based on Toras Menachem, 5744:2 pp. 706-707 and PP. 714-715