Get Email Updates!


One of the abiding themes of the book of Genesis is that of family conflict and reconciliation. Each biblical generation tells its own version of the story of sibling rivalry, from the disastrous conflict between Cain and Abel at the beginning of Genesis, to the happy reunion of the sons of Jacob at the end of the book. In a broader context, this story is the story of all humanity and symbolizes the biblical dream for the now feuding human family to be reconciled with each other as loving brothers and sisters. In the specific context, each version of the story is a case study in family dynamics and ethics. Each time that Genesis replays the story, it holds up a mirror within which we can study our lives.

The stories of conflict and, hopefully, reconciliation are rooted in the most powerful of human emotions - hate, jealousy, fear, greed, pride, anger and, primarily and ultimately, love - and in the most basic of human relationships - the family. Violence is never far from the surface. Cain kills Abel. Esau pursues Jacob. Joseph's brothers cast him into a pit. The consequences are never tidy. Cain is marked for life. Ishmael is expelled. Jacob spends decades in exile. Joseph is sold as a slave.

The stories are grounded in the family life and the problems and conflicts involved in nurturing children. They reflect a child's struggle for parental love and acceptance, the challenges of learning to live in a community and the need for each child to develop an independent self. They show us how poorly the material expressions of parental love express the deeper values we want to impart to our children.

But each version of the story presents us with hope for growth and change. The book of Genesis shows us that we are not bound forever in the conflicts of our youth and that family members can learn to accept each other despite, or, perhaps because of their experiences. We can grow up.

Cain, after presenting the first moral dilemma, goes on to establish human civilization. Isaac and Ishmael go beyond childhood conflict to jointly mourn the passing of their father Abraham. Esau, having succeeded in his own right, is able to welcome his brother Jacob, disregarding their earlier conflicts. In this week's portion, in a dramatic moment, Joseph, having risen from slave to Prime Minister of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers two decades after they had first cast him into a pit and sold him to an Ishmaelite caravan.

This reunion could only take place because Joseph and his brothers had long outgrown the pride and jealousy that marked their younger selves. They were able to use the challenges of their lives to help them build more mature personalities. The brothers who came down to Egypt seeking supplies were no longer the bickering young men seeking to oust a rival, but rather serious grown men doing all they could to take care of each other and the family enterprise. Joseph, too, had changed. No longer was he the dreamer who imagined how glorious ruling would be. Now, as Prime Minister, he had the awesome and difficult task to guide his adopted country through years of ever deepening famine. By getting older, growing up, gaining insight and uncovering wisdom, Jacob's sons learned about themselves and their father - what we need to learn to go beyond the once passionate, but now half-forgotten, struggles and conflicts of our youth.

As we grow older we learn that our parents have a history and that their past affects the way they relate to us. We begin to understand that parental love. In his explanation to Joseph of Jacob's special relationship with Benjamin (beside Joseph, the only son of Jacob's deceased, beloved wife, Rachel) Judah shows that he has come to appreciate his father's past. He understands how Jacob's life was molded by Jacob's flight from Esau and the way that Laban, Judah's grandfather, exploited his son-in-law and played with his emotions.

Part of maturity is the understanding that our own personalities affect the way we relate with our families. None of us is perfect and, in our own way, each of us is difficult to love. We are not objects of affection but active agents in dynamic relationships. We need to be responsible for each other. Judah's concern for his brother Benjamin, standing accused of stealing Joseph's silver goblet, and for his father Jacob's well being demonstrates Judah's spiritual and emotional growth.

If we truly wish to overcome family conflicts, we need to learn that the dynamic, interpersonal issues of family relationships cannot be resolved by mechanical means. Cleverly devised seating charts at bar mitzvahs and weddings and formal exchanges of holiday greetings do not solve family problems. These issues can only be resolved if we are able to meet each other as we are today and not as we were.

Joseph's brothers soon came to realize that removing Joseph physically from the scene did not take him out of their father Jacob's heart. In fact, the opposite happened and the memory of Joseph consumed more of Jacob's emotional strength than did Joseph's presence. Jacob's sons could never be reconciled with each other as long as the memory of Joseph's vanity and his brothers' jealousy ruled their lives. Only a well-established but lonely Joseph and an accomplished but needy Judah could effect the reunion.

As we learn about love and loss, as we experience life's frustrations, we understand how our own parents' half-fulfilled dreams affected their lives and ours. Jacob, the golden boy who could wrestle both men and angels, found himself as a grown man to be the chief of an unruly clan in a world surrounded by enemies and rivals. Only as his sons learned to deal with the challenges and disappointments of their own lives and of their own children, are they able to make sense of their father's soul shaking concerns and go beyond their envy of Joseph as the perceived focus of their father's affections.

Finally, as we grow older, we begin to sense our own loneliness. We begin to miss those who most closely shared our most intimate world and most cherished memories. Joseph, alone in Egypt, watching his own two sons grow, becomes aware of his loss. He needs to be connected with his brothers and with his past. This week's portion, Vayigash, powerfully presents Joseph, no longer able to hold back his emotions, tearing off the trappings of his Egyptian office, and tearfully declaring to his brothers that he is Joseph, the one they thought was lost forever.

The book of Genesis ends with the brothers being reconciled. Jacob's family is reunited and, as one, they are able to survive the famine of the seven bad years of Pharoah's dream and become the founders of the tribes of Israel. Their youthful rivalries, which at one time almost destroyed them, are now ancient history as they are able to meet as mature men dealing with the serious issues of adult life. They grew up and, hopefully, provide us with a model to use on our journeys towards true maturity.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

This is the archival site for It is no longer updated.

For the new site, please visit