Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 19 December 2015
We began the service singing hineh mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad. It’s a verse from Psalm 133 and is usually translated as “behold how good and pleasant it is for achim, brothers to live together in unity.” As a firm believer in the use of gender-neutral language wherever possible, I find the word achim here quite problematic. Ach in Hebrew is ‘a brother,’ achim the plural. But it’s obvious that when the psalm uses the word achim it doesn’t mean ‘brothers’ literally, as if to say ‘sisters’ needn’t be mentioned here because it doesn’t matter whether they live together in unity or not.
It’s hard to find a gender-neutral word for achim in the sense of people not related to each other by blood, but who have a connection because of their common humanity, their human being-ness. And of the many problems currently besetting humanity, this inability to see how the ‘other’ is an ach, a ‘brother’ must surely be high up the list.
We’re just a few chapters away from the end of Bereshit, Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Perhaps more than any other book of the Torah, what Genesis is about is what I call ‘mishpochology’ – family stuff. It’s about relationships within the Jewish family and it confronts us with a question, one with which the book attempts to grapple: is there an ideal relationship to which we should aspire?
The obvious answer might be the relationship between men and women. After all, it remains the primary way in which the human race ensures its continuity.
And of course Genesis begins with the relationship between man and woman. But that’s not the central relationship throughout the rest of the book. In some senses, you could say that, for better or worse, the relationship between man and women is resolved in those opening chapters. Adam and Eve, man and woman, are banished from the Garden of Eden. They have to enter the real world, a world where childbirth is painful, where you have to earn your living by the sweat of the brow and where there is an uneasy relationship between men and women.
But after that the key relationship in the book shifts to that between brothers. It starts in the most murderous way with Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel. And in virtually every subsequent generation it’s that sibling relationship which proves to be the most difficult. Sarah cannot bear for her child, Isaac, to be in the same place as Ishmael, the child Abraham has had with Hagar, the au pair. In the next generation, Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau hardly have a loving relationship. 11 of Jacob’s sons end up plotting to kill Joseph. And it’s only after 44 chapters, out of 50, that there’s a sort of reconciliation between brothers, which is what Zac read to us this morning.
Joseph’s story takes up 14 of the 50 chapters – more than a quarter of the whole book. Thomas Mann, the great German novelist made it into an epic, 4 part, novel. Zac, in his d’var torah, referred to Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat.
So it’s not the relationship between man and woman that proves to be problematic in this book but that between brothers. After the episode of the Garden of Eden, male-female relationships do come up but it’s interesting how they are resolved.
Abraham and Sarah go down to Egypt. Abraham asks Sarah not to say that she is his wife because the Egyptians will kill him and take her. “Tell them,” he says, “that you are my sister and then they will not kill me, then you and I will be safe.” In other words, a difficulty between men and women is resolved at the level of siblings. Even more tellingly, in the next generation, Isaac and Rebecca also go down to Egypt. Isaac tells the king of Egypt that Rebecca is his sister. The king puts them up in his palace but one day looks out of the window and sees Isaac and Rebecca canoodling, behaving in a very non-sibling sort of way!
So what is going on here? In both cases where there is a real or potential problem of relationship between man and woman, it finds some sort of resolution at the level of relationship between sibling and sibling.
So if Genesis is suggesting that there is an ideal relationship towards which we should be striving, it is to work towards how to become a brother to another human being.
And that’s where I run into the gender-neutral language problem because I want to get away from seeing ‘brother’ in terms of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers – people who have a physical, actual connection of blood and family.
It’s obvious that I should feel a connection with my siblings. I may not get on well with them; I may not even love them, but they remain my siblings – there is a thread connecting us whether I or they like it or not.
But what Genesis is speaking about is another sort of ‘brother.’ The Joseph story leaves us with a lot of questions: why does Joseph not reveal himself to his brothers they minute they first come before him? why has he never tried to establish contact with his father? why does he play a cat and mouse game with his brothers? why does he reveal himself to them at the moment he does and not sooner?
Perhaps that last one is the most straightforward to answer. He wants to see if they have changed. He gives them the opportunity to abandon their youngest brother Benjamin in the same way they abandoned him, Joseph, all those years before. And he hears Judah saying to the brothers, “how can we do this? how can we again go to our father and tell him that another son is not coming back?” That’s the point where he recognises that they have changed.
Maimonides, the great 12th C philosopher asks what is the difference between teshuvah, repentance, and teshuvah gemurah, ‘complete repentance.’ Complete repentance, he suggests, is only when you have done wrong and repented and then subsequently have the same opportunity to do the same thing again – but this time you act differently. Only then, for Maimonides, can you be sure that the contrition and repentance are real. And that’s what Joseph is looking for and why he reveals himself when he does: he’s given them the opportunity to do to their brother what they did to him, but this time they say “no.”
Many years ago I was due to do a stonesetting for somebody’s parent. The surviving ‘nuclear’ family was two grown up siblings. A few days before the stonesetting I had an anguished phone call from the other one saying they had just been to the cemetery to check the stone and seen that their sibling, who had arranged the stone with the stonemason, had left out their name in the inscription. It was clear to them that this wasn’t some oversight but a deliberate omission.
Sadly, many of us will know from our own families or from friends, how siblings can do terrible things to each other. Maybe it’s because there is so much emotion invested in the relationship, such a hinterland of past relationship.
There is no decent gender-neutral equivalent of ‘brother’ to express kinship which is non-familial. ‘Brotherhood’ is, surely, about how we relate to, how we treat those with whom we have no obvious connection – where all the outer ‘signs’ militate against feeling any connection: nationality, religion, skin colour, comparative wealth. All the scales by which we measure ourselves and others dwindle to nothing against that higher scale of connection. They are, simply, human beings just like we are.
So what the Torah is trying to do is to engender somebody who is capable of being a true and real brother to other human beings. The trials and tribulations of each generation of brothers until our chapter, our sidra, the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers are part of that journey.
And so Genesis can end where it does. Joseph brings his father and the household down to Egypt. They settle there. The inner tensions of the Jewish family have been resolved. Throughout the book of Genesis one word is never used – it is am, ‘a people.’ It has only been through the difficulties of these generations that we can begin to speak of the family as a people. The family can now go out into the world and engage with it, bringing their particular skills and experience to the task of creating a better world.
My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Magonet suggested that we might read the Joseph saga as a sort of soap opera. I’m not a great fan of Eastenders or Coronation Street but when I do see them I’m amazed at how much concentrated, raw emotion can get packed into one ½hour episode. “In a fragmented world,” he writes, “the television soap opera that reflects more immediately today’s reality is more powerful” [than the Bible stories] “Indeed, it often contains morality tales about human struggles, successes and failures. Nevertheless one difference is important. Soap operas come to us as passive observers in words and pictures on TV. We are robbed of the opportunity of using our own imagination to picture what is happening …. and to make the interpretation that relates these stories to our lives.” (A Rabbi reads the Torah SCM 2013, page 34)
And that is what is so special about the stories in Genesis. “Did they happen?” “didn’t they happen?” seem irrelevant questions because they miss the point: how do we read what’s happening? in what way are these stories like mirrors in which we see our own lives? What do they teach us about how we might be better brothers to our fellow human beings?
Hineh mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad.