Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Vayeshev 2013

Parashat Va-yeshev
Rabbi Harry Jacobi

21 November 2013

Our Sidra to-day comes in the middle of the story of Jacob. It is the longest and most detailed family history in our Bible stretching over twenty-four chapters. What child does not know and love the musical: “Joseph and the amazing technicolour dreamcoat”!

However, if we look at the story more closely, we find it awful, sad and tragic. It begins with a brotherly feud even before· birth: “Vayitrotsetsu habanim – the children struggled within the mother, Rebeccah.” It continues with the younger son, Jacob, taking advantage of a momentary weakness of the elder, Esau, deceiving his father and receiving the blessing of his father and birthright instead of his elder brother. No wonder, Esau hated his brother, planned to kill him and caused him to flee.

Though Jacob is blessed with twelve sons, one daughter and great material wealth, the seed of further tragedy is sown in Jacob’s decision to let his favourite wife, Rachel, and his favourite son, Joseph, make up the rear in a convoy, so as to expose them to minimum danger.· Thius tragedy is compounded by Jacob showing further favouritism to Joseph by loving him more than his other children, giving him the coat of many colours and keeping him at home while the other brothers had to go out to work.

Rabbi Shimon was of the opinion that the best thing a man should strive for is:·“Haroeh et hanolad. – to be able to see the fruit of one’s action.” (Avot 2,13) Anyone could and should have foreseen the results of Jacob’s action. Well aware of the jealousy and hatred his action provoked, Jacob did nothing· but only kept the facts in mind, as we read: “Veshamar et hadavar- he kept it in mind”. Noticing and then ignoring the jealousy and hatred of the brothers are bound to lead to trouble and distress for himself and his family. As we know, the story continues with the brothers selling Joseph to Egypt and deceiving· the father who is bereft. Is it any wonder that· towards· the end of his life Jacob,· at· 130 years, bemoans the fact that “Me-at vera-im hayu yemei chayai – few and troublesome have been the days of my life” (Gen. 47,9)· What could have been a happy as well as a wealthy family· turned out to be a family driven apart by jealousy and hatred, lies and deceptions.

We all know families like Jacob’s, enjoying good health, a high standard· of material comfort and prosperity, who are nonetheless far from happy yet torn apart by jealousy and hatred or minor causes of friction blown up out of all proportion therefore leading to strife and misery. I experienced an example, unfortunately not unique or rare, when· I officiated at a funeral of an old man, a father who had become a widower and then married again. The relationship between the daughter and her stepmother had been· strained, · deteriorated and eventually led to complete estrangement between father and only daughter. The father had not seen his daughter and his grandsons for many years and was not even invited to the Bar Mitsvah of his grandson. Many tears of regret and contrition were shed at the graveside – alas too late. The story of Jacob and Joseph is a classic example of how not to do it. It is not jolly entertainment (though I admit that my own children enjoyed and took part in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical).· It should be regarded, at least by grown-ups, as a solemn warning of how unhappiness and misery can be brought to a family by hatred and jealousy instead of love, affection and respect.

So it is with some relief that next week, at Chanukkah, we turn to another famous Jewish family: the family of Judas Maccabeus. The father, Mattathias, had five sons, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan. We can safely assume that he loved and respected them equally, for on his deathbed they stand around him filled with love and respect. Mattathias realised, as those of us·blessed· with more than one child shouldl do, that children can be very different in character, behaviour and· abilities. Mattathias knowing full well the strength and weakness of each of his sons, advised them before he dies, as we read in the second chapter of the first book of Maccabees: “Simon is a wise counsel, listen to him, let him be like a father to you!”· “And Judas. He is brave and strong from boyhood, he shall be your commander in the field and fight our people’s battles.” The sons realised how right and wise the father was and accepted his advice without murmur or dissent, although Simon was not the first-born and Judas was the third in line.They treated each other with·brotherly love and respect, felt no jealousy or hatred.

The Chanukkah story has always been taught and learned as a victory of the spirit over might and· the few prevailing over the many. We live at an age of increasing divorce (even in our royal family), of children in distress as a result, of many families disunited and unhappy as Jacob’s was. So let us be inspired by the Maccabees, the example of mutual unity and respect. Let us celebrate Chanukkah with our families, value the wonderful and precious opportunity it gives to unite our families in love and respect between generations, brothers and sisters, so that all our families will realise the truth of the song of the Psalmist: “Hiney mah tov u-mana’im shevet achim gam yachad – Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell· together in unity.”