Friday, December 23, 2011

Joseph, Bullying, and Latkes


28 Kislev 5772 / December 23-24, 2011

Shabbat Chanukah

In this week’s portion, we find Joseph having a bit of fun at his brothers’ expense.

After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph becomes Egypt’s second-in-command, and oversees the storing of grain during seven years of plenty, in order to have enough food on hand for the predicted seven years of famine that would follow. During said famine, Jacob sends his sons (sans Benjamin, who has replaced Joseph as Jacob’s favorite) down to Egypt in order to buy food, as the famine had reached their family home in the Land of Canaan. Joseph has not seen his brothers since they sold him into slavery, and before helping them, he decides to mess with them a bit (as they don’t recognize him) by speaking to them harshly and accusing them of being spies.

The ancient rabbis view this interaction in a number of ways. Some say Joseph needed to test his brothers in order to determine whether or not they had changed their ways. Others say that he was fearful and purposely cautious, as if his brothers had hated him when he had dreamed that they were bowing to him, how much more so would they hate him if they realized they were actually bowing to him!

Today, some might view Joseph’s actions as vindication – the ability to finally get back at his brothers for what they did to him. Others might view it as bullying.

Bullying has been all over the news lately, with all-too-frequent stories about teens taking their own lives as a result. Bullying can take different forms, particularly with today’s myriad online communication tools. Perceiving someone as “different” is often what leads to bullying, coupled with one’s own insecurities.

Bullying and Judaism do not, and cannot, coexist.

When asked to share the single most important concept in all of Torah, Rabbi Akiva (approx. 50-135 CE), one of the earliest and most influential rabbis of all time, responded: “ve’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha” – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Coupled with the traditional Jewish belief that every human being is made in the image of God, it is not possible to both be a bully and an ethical Jew.

With this Shabbat falling during the holiday of Chanukah, take note of how the ancient Jews were bullied by Antiochus and the Greeks, how some went along with his decrees, and how the Maccabees spoke and acted out against him.

“Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

If you see someone being bullied, speak out.

If you know someone being bullied, support him/her however you can.

This week, and going forward, when you see someone that for some reason you initially perceive as being “different” than you, reflect for a moment on the beauty they must possess just by virtue of being human, and rather than look away or stare in disgust, smile at their beauty.

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