A few years back, I noted the rather discordant nature of the last stories in the Book of Bereshit. Right before the story of Yosef’s death, there is a strange scene in which the brothers show concern that Yosef might still want to take revenge on them, which he quickly dispels. However though life would continue as it had during their father’s lifetime, the conflict is never completely resolved. Many notice that the brothers never came out and asked Yosef for forgiveness. And since, as Rabbenu Bachya points out, Yosef was also at fault, it should be noted that he also doesn’t ask for forgiveness. In fact, in his case, it is actually even worse – the brothers at least admit some wrongdoing, whereas we hear nothing of the sort from their more powerful brother.
Perhaps our disappointment at this ending is because we have become too used to fairy tale endings in which everyone lives happily ever after. Regardless, it is not something which we should simply pass over. For one, it is a far from an isolated event. The messianic vision in last week’s haftarah in which Ephraim (Yosef) and Yehudah reunite should remind us that the division between Yosef and the other brothers was one that set the tone for almost the entire period of the Jewish monarchy. (The shift of all the tribes besides Binyamin towards Yosef during that period is fascinating, but need not concern us right now.)
The unresolved nature of this conflict should help us understand that with it, the Torah turns to a new type of episode – the question of what to do when two people who disagree are both right. Up until now, the conflicts were between right and wrong. Granted we have often noted the nuance in those conflicts, such that right is generally not completely right and wrong not completely wrong. Still, even a nuanced understanding of the conflict between Esav and Yaakov will show it to be of a completely different nature than the moral standoff between Yehudah and Yosef.
Given the moral stature of the brothers, it was not senseless hatred or an inability to let go of past grievances that created this impasse. Rather the very different personalities of Yosef and Yehudah ultimately represented two completely different and possibly incompatible worldviews.
The tragedy this represents is the tragedy built into the near impossibility of seeing reality from a completely different – though also legitimate – perspective. This was also the tragedy of Rabbi Eliezer and the sages in Bava Metzia 59b. In that famous story, a legal dispute is taken to its logical extreme in which the truth must be defended at all costs. The costs in this case were the banishment of the generation’s greatest Torah scholar on the one hand and his lethal curse of many of the others – including his closest student and the leader of the next generation, Rabbi Akiva – on the other.
It is not that the other rabbis did not try to understand Rabbi Eliezer’s position. They simply were unable to do so. And, if so, they had almost no choice but to oppose him to the bitter end. And the same seems true of Rabbi Eliezer. Had he been residing in their heads, he would have had to have taken the same position they did. But not only did he not reside there, he could not even conceive of what that would mean. This is not a moral failure, but an often tragic part of the human condition.
Its tragedy is multiplied by the fact that when both parties are actually right, disputes are likely to be more intense and longer in duration. For why bother seeing if the other person is right, when you already know that you are right? In the eyes of most people, “also right,” simply does not exist. While some Jewish mystics seem to have been privy to such a vision, it is seems to be something only the very few are able to understand, let alone internalize. Indeed, that is why the haftarah mentioned above is a prediction of messianic times.
So while a proper reading of the Book of Bereshit introduces us to moral complexity, its end pushes us even further. It prepares us for the fact that there is even a level of moral complexity, which we should realize exists even if we may never understand it. If nothing else, the humility that comes with that realization should temper the vendettas we will inevitably have with those who we are sure are wrong.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast, Do You Speak Yosef or Yehudah?