“But how can you call a family ‘upright’ if they fight so much?”
As we come to the end of the book of Genesis, we are struck by the friction within the first Jewish families. Like a strident chord in what we yearn to be harmony between siblings, we find instead episodes of jealousy, hatred, mistrust, and misunderstanding. The sages who have a different name for each book of Torah, refer to Genesis as ‘The Book of the Upright.’ But how can you call a family ‘upright’ when they fight so much?
The answer may lie within the verse: ‘A righteous person falls seven times, and gets up.’ In other words, a Tsaddik in not one who never falls, but who continually strives to rise again. Some light may be shed on this dynamic by a recent reality based film that many consider will win an Academy award this year. ‘The Green Book’ is about the life of a brilliant, but reclusive, African American pianist, Don Shirley. Don travels a Southern route to perform in several cities and towns that in the 60’s still had many racist laws and attitudes. He hires a rather uncouth Italian bouncer to drive him around, and keep him out of trouble. The title of the film is due to an actual ‘Green’ book that existed in those years, telling ‘colored folk’ where they may or may not lodge, eat, etc. in most of these cities. The story unfolds as we might expect, but the relationship between the two very different men is complex and nuanced. Along the line of Joseph and his brothers, the men at first mistrust and look down on each other, but eventually learn to appreciate the qualities that each lack in themselves. They grow a lot in the process. The acting is very well done, and, its truth makes the story even more significant.
Now let’s turn to the latter chapters in Genesis to look more carefully at the struggles with our own ancestors. First from the text itself: Jacob makes Joseph a special coat. This discrimination generates the brothers’ envy. Then Joseph says something derogatory to his father about his brothers, and has two dreams which seem to indicate his superiority. It’s downhill from there till the denouement. If we look back at where this conflict began and dig beneath the surface, we see that the friction arises not just from stereotyping or superficial judging.
The sages fill in the details of why each side, Joseph on one, and the brothers, led by Judah on the other, feels they are justified in their perspectives. Joseph thinks the brothers are doing some things wrong. One reason for this misperception is that Joseph sees them as mistreating the sons of the handmaids, the two other wives of Jacob, Blihah and Zilpah. He tries to no avail to correct his brothers and then goes to the father to intervene.
The other antagonizing act of Joseph is to relate his dreams about apparent domination of his brothers. If the dreams are prophetic, he must express them. But the brothers get so riled up that they can no longer even speak to him peacefully and they end up, literally, selling him down the river. The sages clarify their shocking behavior by telling us that the brothers thought Joseph’s plans were to oust them from the family- similar to what happened to Yishmael and Esav. The mystics explain that the conflict concerned an overall theological disagreement about what is the objective of Jewish life: to remain aloof from the secular world like the brothers who were shepherds, or to engage with the world like the statesman Joseph.
Whatever side one may take on this conflict, there is an even more primary issue. If Jacob had not married both Leah and Rachel, the mothers of Judah and Joseph, the conflict may never had occurred. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances involved. However, it seems like G-d, to put it mildly, let this happen. One of my favorite, if most ironic, midrashic commentaries states that while all the parties were grieving over their distress, G-d was busy creating the light of Mashiach! What could this possibly mean? To put it succinctly, as Rabbi Simon Jacobson, phrased it, ‘We are in a dark world.’ This world, this Olam meaning concealment, is by definition, a place where the Divine is hiding. Like the letter Beit, with which the Torah begins and numerically is two, our world is a place of duality and therefore conflict is inevitable. Our choice, in the words of Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, is to act like Cain who declared, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ or like Joseph who responds, ‘I am seeking my brothers.’
Let’s review the film The Green Book from this perspective: On one side, you have the refined, consummate and reserved musician, and on the other side, the rough but more sociable ‘handler’ type, in Yiddish terms. They each have their prejudices and judgements about the other. The African American is the more sophisticated, educated, and cultured of the two. But the bottom line is as they travel together both geographically and psychologically, they learn to drop many of their prejudices and to understand, accept, and depend on each other.
Like Joseph and his brothers, the two men establish rapport, not from a position of ease and comfort, but out of each one’s personal angst. The pianist: ‘So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me Tony, what am I?’ The street smart driver has his own hang-ups and is oblivious to many tenets of basic ‘menchlichkeit’. To Don’s dismay, Tony flings litter on the roads and pilfers something from an outdoor stand. Earlier in the movie, he throws a couple of glasses given by his wife to two black workers, into the garbage.
However, as their journeys and experiences progress, this odd couple begins to better appreciate each other’s positive qualities. Don admires and comes to depend on Tony’s confrontational abilities and sense of injustice, and Tony grows to value Don’s skills and abilities. As Tony writes home to his wife, ‘Dear Dolores, I saw Dr. Shirley play the piano. He’s like a genius, I think.’ As they struggle together to come to terms with the realities of the world around them, they learn to engage in that world and with each other as they could never have done alone.
It seems quite intriguing that both these characters and the brothers in the Joseph story experience their growth through their descending journey. Perhaps that’s where the expression ‘things went ‘south’ comes from! Cosmically, when a soul leaves heaven and enters a body, this journey is considered a ‘descent for the purpose of ascent.’ In other words, even holy beings need to leave their comfort zone to become something greater than they were at first. Maybe this is why the book of Genesis is called, ‘the book of the upright.’ As in the quote, ‘the righteous fall seven times and rise,’ often it takes others in our lives to help us get up, not just physically but through exposure through the contrasts between ‘us and them.’
One of the most memorable quotes from the film is: (Tony to Oleg, Don’s accompanier, speaking about Don) ‘How does he smile and shake their hands like that?’ Oleg’s response: ‘BECAUSE IT TAKES COURAGE TO CHANGE PEOPLE’S HEARTS.’ And toward the end of the Joseph story, we find the brothers saying, ‘We are guilty. When we heard our brother’s cries and did not respond.’ Also Joseph realizes ‘G-d intended this all for the good.’
G-d does seem to have created this world with built in conflict. There are struggles to existence both within and without human nature. This dissonance happens because we are meant to repair these rifts. Our work is to be caretakers of the world at large, and also to expand ourselves through becoming considerate of and being sensitive to those who may have different strengths and perspectives than ours.
There is a wonderful line from a song in Pocahontas: ‘When you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you learn things you never knew you never knew.’ As we enter the book of Exodus, let us remember that we are often liberated from our Mitzrayim, our personal constraints, by entering into these constraints with courage, conviction, or at least hope, that the challenges are put in place for our own enlightenment. And we are not alone.