Monthly Archives: December 2014

Parshat Miketz

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Shimon was not being heard.

Yosef, the great Egyptian vizier, forces his brothers to leave one of them as hostage, and he chooses Shimon. There is apparently no complaint, or resistance, or plea neither from the brothers, nor from Shimon himself.

Thirteen years earlier, when the brothers caught Joseph and threw him into the well, we did not hear any complaint or cry, neither. Joseph also was silent.

Was he?

In our parashah we finally discover that he did cry, he did ask for his brother’s compassion… but they did not hear: “We are being punished because of our brother. We saw his distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen” (Gen. 42:21). Why the Torah did not tell us at that point, in parshat Vayeshev, that Yosef spoke up and pleaded? Maybe it is so to let us feel that lack of listening from his brother’s side. Yosef cries and, like his brothers, we do not listen. The Torah teaches us by means of a hard example, together with a tangible experience.

Maybe Shimon also cries and claims, but they are not ready to hear.

The difficulty to listen, the difficulty to accept the voice of the other, is a central issue in Yaakov’s children relationship.

Now they talk in front of Yosef; they speak of their younger brother’s cry while being thrown into the well – a cry that they were not willing to listen to. They speak, but they still ignore the presence of their fellow person. Yosef listens, understands, but they do not take him in consideration. They assume he does not understand; and if he does not understand, he is not significant. Let’s talk in his presence without taking him into account.

Yosef, on the contrary, is open to listen to his fellow distress. He listens to the other and is open to hear and to understand. That is why he has the ability of interpret dreams, which are the hidden language of God and of the soul.

The brothers are too busy with themselves to grant the fellow person the status of existent: Yosef is there, but they do not recognize him; Shimon is there, but they do not hear him. Yaakov cries: “You have bereaved me of my children: Yosef is no more, Shimon is no more, and now you would take Binyamin!” (Gen. 42:6), but his children are not able to understand his clamor. Reuven even offers him to magnify the loss: “Kill my two sons, instead“… these are Yaakov’s grandchildren! Instead of three, Reuven suggests losing five of the family!

Yosef’s “exercise” is intended to cause them feel directly what it is not to be heard. They tell him who they are what their intentions are, but he makes like he does not listen and considers them to be spies: “Your servants have never been spies… We are twelve brothers, the sons of one man” (Gen. 42:11-13). But all explanation was useless: “It is as I said to you. You are spies” (idem 14). They feel the hopelessness of that who says and is not listened to.

The long and painful experience that Joseph makes them go through, produces a change in their souls and they are now ready to understand what they did not understood previously. They begin hearing one another, they quit each one’s bubble of isolation and become able recognize and accept the existence of their fellow person

This evolution in their souls is the founding point of the development of the People of Israel, a people ready to accept the Torah, to listen to God’s voice, to elevate the existence of other persons to the level of vital respect, and to persist in reading, listening and understanding every evening and every morning.

Parshat Vayeshev

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We usually consider little actions to be of little importance. Even things we utter by the way, we do not think of them as having any big consequences. It is as if crucial outgrowths could only come from important and programmed deeds. Moreover, drastic changes in history come only from famous people, who are experienced and well known in the field which is being transformed. At least, this is the widespread opinion.

Our parashah shows us a different reality, a more frequent one that happens every day, a reality more like ours. We may think it is a fortuitous reality. But it is not.

Yaakov had sent Yosef to search for his brothers, who went to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem. Yosef did not find them. He wandered seeking them, but it was of no avail.

Up till now, this is a simple story of something that could also happen to us. We set an appointment at a certain place but we cannot find each other. What do we do? We wait, we search, and after a while we decide to go back. We couldn’t meet this time, so we’ll do it later on.

But in the parashah Yosef finds a man, an anonymous man, whose task is to ask him “what are you looking for?” meaning “have you lost something? Have you get lost? May I help you?” A simply deed of everyday life. A generous one, but simple all the same. Something done by an unknown person. A deed that is not intended to cause any significant revolution. “They went to Dothan”, this is all the contribution of this anonymous man.

Is it?

Wasn’t this man interested in Yosef and hadn’t he offered him this simple information, Yosef would neither have been sold, nor would he have arrived to Egypt, nor would he have become Vizier. He would not have brought his father and siblings into Egypt and would not have become slaves in a strange land. We would have then never been liberated, would not have received the Torah at Mount Sinai, we would have never entered the Promised Land and the slavery we suffered would have never become the example and the basis for foundational mitzvoth of the Jewish civilization such as Shabbath, loving the stranger, respecting the rights of the slaves and paying them a compensation for slavery time, judicial justice, justice for the vulnerable, social justice and support for the needy.

It was only because one little thing by an anonymous man that our history developed as it developed.

God had said to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a strange land and that He would redeem them. But He did not state neither the place, nor the time, nor how things would develop. He did not even say who exactly would be those involved and how they may respond to the developments. All this was in man’s hand.

And that anonymous man, with his so little deed, changed our whole history.

We all are that anonymous man. We should never belittle the importance of what each one of us may do. We should neither forget the power of our words – power either to build or to destroy.

Parshat Va-Yishlah

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We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (Gen. 32:7 (6))

What did Yaakov’s messengers really mean? A well-known explanation says that Esav was coming to fight him: “We came to your brother, but he behaves towards you like Esav, the one who hates you” (Bereshit Rabba, Pseudo Jonathan, Rashi, Radak). Others consider they reported only plain facts: “he comes to see you the same as you come to see him” (Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides). Other commentators see here the happiness of the reunion: “Esav comes with a large retinue to welcome his brother joyfully and cheerily” (Rashbam, Hizkuni).

So, how should we deliver a piece of information? How should we tell somebody, somebody else’s message?

Even though there is not an exclusive way or technique to do that, three basic qualities are to be met by a messenger: objective approach, empathy and control of emotional sensitivity.

Objective approach: to rely on facts, without adding or omitting elements.

Empathy: to try and understand what the receiver of the news feels (not “how”, but “what” he/she feels), without being emotionally involved. Emotional engagement may lead us to not to understand other person’s feelings, but to be engrossed in our own feelings and to react according to the latter.

Control of emotional sensitivity: to understand the emotional process we go through, so as to prevent these feelings from interfering.  Our feelings may lead us to detachment and coldness (out of distress to deal with the facts), or to overexcitement, or even to decide not to deliver information that is hard for us to grasp (assuming it will be hard for the receiver to hear). In other words, our feelings thwart our real understanding of the fellow person, they dazzle the soul and may lead us to act in a paternalistic way (“my feelings know better what is good for him or her”). At any rate, we should not annul or neutralize the feelings – the real challenge is to control them.

These three qualities must be present together. Relying on only one of them may cause us to deliver a wrong message, an inappropriate one, which consequences may be disastrous… even having the best of the intentions… like Yaakov’s messengers.

They failed to apply two out of the three qualities. They were very objective in their report, but they were neither empathetic, nor did they measured their own feelings. They described the facts without taking on account Yaakov’s situation, his problematic relationship with Esav, his fears, or even the threat of death because of which he fled the land he’s now returning to. Maybe they felt it was better for Yaakov not to return. Maybe they were full of anger against Esav. It is possible that they preferred not to influence Yaakov in any way, so they took the objective approach. At any rate, they did not measure the emotional sensitivity required by the situation.

The messengers transmitted only facts, without any context. Over-objectivity, that was not objective at all, since the context was lacking. And the context is a built-in part of reality.

In this way, they let Yaakov’s fear and anxiety tint the information with tonalities of loss and destruction. His apprehension coming from the past conquered him and prevented him to properly judge the now different current reality.

It is not easy to put in practice the three basic qualities of transmitting a message. Especially hard are empathy and control of emotional sensitivity. But to ignore them is tantamount to disembarrass oneself of the great responsibility of being a messenger of truth.