Why is Genesis, the foundational book of the entire Jewish religion, seemingly obsessed with sibling rivalry?
Talk given in Congregation B’nai David, December 28th 2019
I’d like to talk about how people in Genesis decide to interact, for better and for worse. And I’d like to enter the topic with a possibly obvious—but very important—observation: it takes a confrontation to solve one of Genesis’ central problems.
I’m speaking of The Problem of Brotherly Strife. It’s the problem that plagues Cain and Abel, and the houses of all three patriarchs. And it appears to be solved in this upcoming parsha, parshat VaYigash.
It’s solved through Judah’s impassioned monologue to Joseph-in-disguise—when Judah can’t take it anymore, and he recaps the better part of the struggles Joseph has put them through throughout Parshat Mikeitz. Finally it’s Joseph who can’t bear it anymore, and Joseph reveals himself, and the brothers (tensely) reconcile. And the brotherly strife of Genesis goes away. The next sibling relationship we see comes in Exodus, in the steady partnership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
Why is sibling rivalry solved by a confrontation? Perhaps because the problem of brotherly strife is rooted in a simple problem: The characters of Genesis are terrible at confronting each one another in anything that resembles a healthy way.
It’s a problem we see most starkly from the very start, with Cain and Abel. God accepts Abel’s offering, Cain is bitterly jealous, and Cain kills Abel. But just before the murder, there’s an almost-speech that goes missing: Cain said to his brother Abel, the text tells us, and then abruptly we read and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. (I’ll be using the Sefaria translation with some modifications, by the way.)
What did Cain say? Did Cain say anything at all? We don’t know. All we know is that instead of reading the words Cain might have delivered to his rival brother, we read of a missing speech—and a murder to replace it.
Cain and Abel set the stage for kinsman struggles to come. Abraham asks Lot to move far away so there will be no strife between you and me. Jacob and Esau’s struggle, Rav Yaakov Steinman argues elaborating on the Neziv—begins with communication issues programmed into the start of Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage. At their first meeting Rebecca sees the holy man from afar and, seemingly awestruck, fell off the camel and covered her face. From that moment on she is unable to confront Isaac directly, including about their sons’ birthright.
When trouble brews, the Genesis family code of brotherhood goes, move away, lie, murder, but whatever you do, don’t talk about it.
It’s a solution that doesn’t solve anything. But Judah offers a different approach: Judah stands up to Joseph, and sibling rivalry goes away. Or to use the textual language: the brothers could not speak peaceably to Joseph at the start of the story (chapter 37 verse 4) but, following Judah’s speech in chapter 45 verse 15, they do speak to him.
To sum up: A central theme of Genesis is sibling rivalry, and the solution Genesis seems to provide is that we need to talk to each other more.
That’s wonderful as life advice. But it’s not clear why this is a foundational lesson of the foundational book of the Bible. And I’d like to focus the rest of this talk exploring why, of all the lessons and topics to kick things off with, this one is it.
To begin to solve this problem, I’d like to zero in on the particular argument Judah lays at Joseph’s feet. Joseph, disguised as the Egyptian leader, is about to enslave Benjamin. But if Joseph takes Benjamin, Judah says, then when their father sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send your servant our father’s aged head down to Sheol in grief.
It’s important to note what Judah says, and what he does not say. Judah does not say You, Joseph, will kill our father by enslaving our brother. Instead, he says enslaving Benjamin will mean he and his brothers must come home with shocking news, and Judah and his brothers—your servants—will send their father’s aged head down to Sheol in grief. Judah’s complaint to Joseph isn’t that Joseph is doing wrong. Judah’s complaint is that he is forcing Judah to do wrong. He’s laying out his anger against his brother, while also taking all the responsibility upon himself.
Judah is listening, in other words, to God’s advice to Cain. You can do right, God tells Cain; but sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master. Grudges and felt wrongs aren’t the issue here. At the end of the day, the responsibility is on you.
Judah follows his speech with an extreme act of brotherly responsibility: he offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin. And in response to Judah’s acts of laying out his inner life and taking responsibility for others, Joseph does the same: he reveals his identity as Joseph, and he immediately sets upon caring for his family for the rest of their lives.
I’ll put this all a little differently. You might be able to lay out Judah’s complaint against Joseph within a certain moral logic. You have no right to be cruel to me, the logic goes, because I am significant. And if I am significant, I have responsibilities to bear.
To which Joseph adds one more layer to the equation—the layer of God. Do not be distressed at what you have done to me, Joseph tells his brothers, because in fact God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth. All of this was God’s plan.
We are allowed to stand up to others because we are significant; if we are significant, we have responsibilities; and if we are significant and responsible, we are worthy of being the vessels of God’s grand design. And if we see our significance through the lens of our responsibilities, it helps us understand God’s grand design when it least makes sense. You have been cruel, but God has sent me.
I’ve taken a lot of this reading from the approach Dr. Yael Ziegler applies to a very different book: the book of Eicha. (Dr. Ziegler was the scholar in residence here in shul a few years back, and if there’s one thing you take from this talk I’ll leave you with this: consume as much Yael Ziegler as you can.) And I think Dr. Ziegler’s approach to Eicha can shed light on why the confrontation / responsibility / Godliness dynamic is so crucial to the first book of Tanakh.
A central part of Ziegler’s analysis rests on the shift in the central chapter, chapter 3, the first-person dirge you might recognize from its opening lines: Ani Hagever—I am the man. Ani Hagever lays out one man’s views of the horrors he has been through in the destruction of Jerusalem; importantly, as Ziegler argues, it also portrays a transformation. It’s a transformation that particularly comes to light when you look at the chapter just before, in which the poet all but attacks God: See O LORD, the poet rails, and behold to whom You have done this! But by the end of chapter 3, the Ani Hagever chapter, the tone of the book (and the tone within that chapter itself) shifts completely: Let us search and examine our ways, this anonymous man declares, And turn back to the LORD. This lone man becomes an “us” alongside God.
This shift, to quote Ziegler:
illustrates the astonishing development… as the gever abandons his self-centered victimhood and begins to perceive those around him. This process allows him to reacquire a relationship with both God and his community, alleviating his loneliness and facilitating his recovery.
You could build on Ziegler’s reading to say that in confronting God, we gain personal responsibility. Or maybe you could say: By being able to confront God, we’re able to become important enough in our own eyes to accept responsibility for our part of our relationship with Him.
The lessons of learning to openly express our needs to each other—as a way to take responsibility for our relationship with each other and with God, even and perhaps especially in the face of tragedy—is a valuable lesson at the end of Genesis, leading into Exodus, on the eve of both our national birth and our first great suffering.
But it’s not just important as a preamble to Exodus. It’s equally important in the long view of the Tanakh—extending through civil wars and a divided kingdom and the destruction of a Temple and exile. We’ll need to keep our community and our relationship with God intact throughout all of these struggles; and for that matter, beyond them. And to stay united throughout, we need to begin by knowing how to confront one another in a meaningful way. As Judah shows, survival depends on meaningful fights.