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The Real Issue


There has long been a massive debate in Anglo Jewry as to whether we should take a unified stance in our support for the State of Israel or openly air our differences. It’s mostly been a noisy and shrill debate, but it’s the wrong debate – as it is deflecting us from the real issue.

And if we seek it, we will find it in this week’s parshah. Listen to the words that are among the most fateful and reverberating in all of Jewish history: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”

The Torah is a deep book. We make a great mistake if we think it can be understood on one superficial level.

On the surface, the story is simple. Envious of him, Joseph’s brothers initially planned to kill him. Eventually they sell him into slavery. He is taken to Egypt. There, through a series of vicissitudes, he rises to become prime minister, second only, in rank and power, to Pharaoh.

It is now many years later. His brothers have come to Egypt to buy food. They come before Joseph, but he no longer looks like the man they knew many years before. Then, he was a 17-year-old called Joseph. Now he is 39, an Egyptian ruler called Tzafnat Paneach, dressed in official robes with a gold chain around his neck, who speaks Egyptian and uses an interpreter to communicate with these visitors from the land of Canaan. No wonder they did not recognize him, though he recognized them.

But that is only the surface meaning. Deep down, the book of Bereishit is exploring the most profound source of conflict in history. Freud thought the great symbol of conflict was Laius and Oedipus, the tension between fathers and sons. Bereishit thinks otherwise. The root of human conflict is sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and now Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph has the misfortune of being the youngest of those present. He symbolizes the Jewish condition. His brothers are older and stronger than him. They resent his presence. They see him as a troublemaker. The fact that their father loves him more only makes them angrier and more resentful. They want to kill him. In the end they get rid of him in a way that allows them to feel a little less guilty. They concoct a story that they tell their father, and they settle down to life again. They can relax. There is no Joseph to disturb their peace anymore.

And now they are facing a stranger in a strange land, and it simply does not occur to them that this man may be Joseph. As far as they are concerned, there is no Joseph. They don’t recognize him now. They never did. They never recognized him as one of them, as their father’s child, as their brother with an identity of his own and a right to be himself.

Joseph is the Jewish people throughout history. “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” Judaism was the world’s first monotheism but not the last. Two others emerged claiming descent, literal or metaphorical, from Abraham: Christianity and Islam. It would be fair to call the relationship between the three Abrahamic monotheisms one of sibling rivalry. Far from being of mere antiquarian interest, the theme of Bereishit has been the leitmotiv of the better part of the last 2,000 years, with the Jewish people cast in the role of Joseph.

There were times – early medieval Spain was one – when Joseph and his brothers lived together in relative harmony, La Convivencia as they called it. But there were also times – the blood libels, the accusations of poisoning wells or spreading the plague – when they sought to kill him. And others – the expulsions that took place throughout Europe between the English in 1290 and the Spanish in 1492 – when they simply wanted to get rid of him. Let him go and be a slave somewhere else, far from here.

Then came the Holocaust. Then came the State of Israel, the destination of the Jewish journey since the days of Abraham, the homeland of the Jewish people since the days of Joshua. No nation on earth, with the possible exception of the Chinese, has had such a long association with a land.

The day the state was born, May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, its prime minister, sought peace with its neighbors, and Israel has not ceased seeking peace from then until now. But this is no ordinary conflict. Israel’s opponents – Hamas in Gaza, Hizbullah in Lebanon, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, are not engaged in a border dispute – these boundaries or those. They deny, as a matter of non-negotiable religious – not just political – principle, Israel’s right to exist within any boundaries whatsoever. There are today 56 Islamic states. But for Israel’s neighbors, a single Jewish state the size of Wales is one too many.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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