Getting to know one another

Parashat Miketz lies at the heart of the action-packed suspense story of Joseph and his brothers. The hero of the story, the righteous Joseph, is transformed from a downtrodden slave into the all-powerful ruler of Egypt; his brothers, who in the previous episode sold Joseph into slavery, approach him with great submission but Joseph devises a plot against them, accusing them of espionage.

From hatred to love

In our current situation the sin of hatred and disharmony amongst the Jewish people is our greatest downfall. Like the brothers’ burning hatred of Joseph that almost resulted in bloodshed, which could only be resolved when their hatred turned into love, so too harmony amongst our people can be restored and hatred resolved by fraternal love and true unity among our people. This is the meaning of Ezekiel’s prophecy that “Joseph’s tree” and “Judah’s tree” will become “one tree.”

Joseph took responsibility for rectifying the hatred by means of the complex plot that he enacted. Like a talented producer, he led his brothers step-by-step until they admitted their regret over his sale and took responsibility for Joseph’s brother Benjamin, recognizing that this was atonement for their sin in selling Joseph into slavery. Joseph retained his harsh mask until he sensed that the moment was ripe to reunite the entire family.

In order to resolve hatred it is not enough to make verbal declarations of eternal love. We need to fathom the core-root of hatred in order to transform it into love.

Hatred from incomprehension

Why did his brothers really hate Joseph? Joseph’s brothers were the soul roots of the Divinely ordained tribes of Israel, surely each of them was “compassionate, bashful and a doer of loving-kindnesses,” the positive qualities associated with every Jew? How then was it that they reached such an intense level of hatred for their own brother?

Hatred results from a lack of understanding and true appreciation of another individual. This was the case with Leah, who was “hated” by Jacob because he did not appreciate her hidden, theoretical attitude to life, as opposed to the down-to-earth approach revealed by Rachel, who he loved and understood on the same wave length, as it were. This was also the case with Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was simply an incomprehensible enigma to them. According to the Torah’s literal interpretation, Joseph was Jacob’s favorite youngest son, he kept Jacob updated on what was happening between his brothers, his strange dreams did not match his brothers’ preconceptions about which brother was their leader and he stood out with his distinctive clothing. Joseph’s variance from their own philosophy on life was incomprehensible to them and that itself became their hatred of him, a hatred that amplified and enflamed itself.

But from a deeper perspective, the brothers’ hatred of Joseph was not because of the abovementioned external parameters of variance, all of which are connected to the entirely different and far more crucial question regarding our purpose in life and how we serve God. Chassidut teaches us that there was an inherent difference between Joseph’s level of Divine service and that of his brothers. Joseph was capable of descending anywhere yet remained righteous from beginning to end, absolutely faithful to his source. Even in the depths of despair, Joseph succeeded in bringing down light from above – like Chanukah candles that illuminate the dark night. It seems that the pit that Joseph fell into became ever-deeper: first he was thrown into a pit full of snakes and scorpions, then he descended to Egypt where he was soon thrown into jail (also referred to as “a pit” in the Torah) but the deeper, darker and more frightening that the pit became did not prevent Joseph from standing erect, rekindling his vitality and succeeding in illuminating the darkness of the pit (in contrast to Judah who also “descended” from his brothers but almost lost sight of all light until he reached rock-bottom, when he acknowledged his descent and rose above it). This type of service is far removed from the path of Joseph’s brothers who knew how to pave their way through the physical world by doing their part (such as shepherding their flocks) and still remain connected to God, but they did not serve as representatives of their cause; they did not act as shluchim who go out and influence outsiders in other places.

The key, therefore, to any manifestation of hatred lies in our incomprehension of the other. One hates someone because one does not actually understand him, he is different and it is difficult to communicate with him, so much so that to one extent or another one perceives him as a threat to one’s own existence. This is the source of the alienation between different social factions, which results in poor quality human relations and obviously this is even the source of marital disharmony.

Rectification: true appreciation

Since hatred is the result of misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation and knowledge of the other’s true self, its rectification must come through true knowledge and appreciation of the other. Indeed, Joseph’s first contact with his brothers after twenty-two years of separation is described thus: “Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them but he alienated himself from them and spoke harshly to them… and Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”

The fact that Joseph recognized his brothers was the beginning of rectification. Even if Joseph had missed the mark when he spoke badly of his brothers to Jacob all those years ago, he now recognized and appreciated them as he should and he gradually educated them to appreciate him too. Indeed, it becomes clear that there is a type of profound appreciation that runs deeper than simple, superficial recognition. This is why at first Joseph could not reveal his true identity to his brothers, because at that stage the knowledge would have been a superficial piece of information that would not have successfully breached the wall of alienation between them. Joseph realized that they would have to reach a true, inner appreciation of him that would lead to mutual understanding and love.

Superficial information

In our meditation on true appreciation, we must first note that in terms of the Torah’s inner dimension, recognition belongs to the sefirah of knowledge, as in the regular use of “knowledge” as knowing/recognizing someone or something.

Anything we turn our minds to can either remain external to our senses or it can reach a more profound dimension. The outermost knowledge is what we refer to as “information.” Indeed, we are in the “age of information” in which we have easy access to an enormous amount of information about any subject under the sun – just “google” the right word for it. But has the information boom made people morally better? Obviously, information is a powerful tool and we can do many good things with it, but this type of knowledge is not essentially good unless it affects the individual who knows it to change for the better. Equating more knowledge with bettering mankind has led some to become addicted to gathering more and more information, paying homage to anyone who knows more than they do on a particular subject (their computer, for example…).

The truth is that obviously, the redemption of mankind will not come as a result of him becoming an all-encompassing database and the vision of the end of days is not that man will be installed with a personal microchip and an internet connection. Quite clearly refined human relations are not a function of such superficial information. I can know many things about someone else, from his hobbies to his medical information but I still do not understand or appreciate him until I begin to interact with him face to face.

Superficial knowledge brings me into contact with the evident external facts about the person or object that I take an interest in and consequently, my soul similarly participates only at its most superficial level, without any true, deep emotional involvement. A relationship constructed solely from this type of “shopping list” information is referred to in Chassidut as “back-to-back.”

Inner knowledge

Indeed, beyond the bare facts of information lies a far more profound knowledge with which the soul itself can interact and through which one can make contact with the more profound levels of another’s soul. When I begin a new acquaintance with a person or with a new realm of knowledge, I need to become familiar with all the facts I can glean, while simultaneously directing myself to absorb the essence that lies beyond the sea of data.

Chassidut refers to inner knowledge as “perception” (הרגש) and teaches us that the ultimate knowledge of the Divine can be aspired to by meditating on the most profound aspects of our knowledge of Him and perceiving it in a way that is inexpressible in words; reaching such a deep level of knowledge results in an authentic connection between the individual who knows and the object of his knowledge. In this way, my knowledge of God is not just another gigabyte of data in my microchip, but a deep and vital connection with God Himself.

In human relations, too, loving someone does not rely on dry-bones information about him but an inner appreciation of him, by which all hatred is dispelled and deep love emerges of its own accord. Whereas with one superficial glance of recognition I can take in all the information I need, I know and sense that your unconscious source of being lies beyond all that I see and only by connecting to you at that level can I truly begin to understand you, so much so that eventually, my knowledge manifests as compassion, meaning a profound sense of identification with you. True love begins from the initial decision not to remain in the realm of information but to truly feel compassion for the other, by power of this one merits to reach an inner knowledge that allows access to the other’s real inner self.

[In Kabbalistic terms: in the structure of the ten sefirot, the sefirah of knowledge is above the sefirah of beauty and in fact comprises its inner soul; the attribute of compassion. The specific goal of relating to reality through compassion allows us to reach the inner quality of knowledge in a process of feedback retrieval of descent, ascent and descent once more. The external aspect of knowledge descends to beauty-compassion, and by power of this descent it is able to return and reach the inner quality of knowledge (“perception”), and from there it continues to rise to the crown, i.e., the super-conscious power of the soul, then it descends once more to the other himself who represents the sefirah of kingdom.]

Essential knowledge, appreciation and marriage

Having understood the difference between informative knowledge and true appreciation we can now rise to an even higher level. Inner appreciation reflects a close interaction between my inner-self and the inner-self of the other, meaning that I can understand them and identify with them with my own “perception” of them, but this still remains a meeting of two different people, albeit face-to-face, which depends on a process of listening to them, internalizing their feelings and deepening my own identification with them. Therefore, as deep as my inner knowledge of the person may penetrate, there remains a distance that cannot be bridged, which manifests if the other is in the depths of despair, totally detached from his relationship with me. When someone loses their will to live a fruitful and productive life, the communication line between us may be lost and I will be unable to find a way to connect with him. In such a case, all the compassion and empathy that I can muster will not suffice to transpass the chasm. Such an individual has lost his own knowledge of his inner self and he can be defined by the saying, “Whoever has no knowledge, it is forbidden to have compassion on him”; my own knowledge of him can no longer access his inner being.

[In Kabbalistic terms, knowledge descends to kingdom as long as it is in the realm of the World of Emanation, the source of all Jewish souls, but it has no knowledge of how to descend to the lost individual who has descended to the lower Worlds.]

Yet, there is another type of knowledge – essential self-knowledge. By becoming aware of my own essence I simply experience myself and the other as one unit, and just as I “understand myself” better than anyone else, so I understand the other, through a sense of total unity. This type of knowledge is capable of bridging any gap that may have been breached between two people. Through such knowledge I become aware not only of your hidden source, your super-conscious, but I reach directly into the innermost root, to touch the infinite where you and I are totally at union. By revealing the essential “non-local” bond between us I am able to reach out to you wherever you are. Even if you have deteriorated to the lowest depths and it seems that all hope is lost, nonetheless, “if I reach the depths, here You are” and even in the depths of despair we can reveal the inherent connection with God that can never be lost.

Here too, the ability to reach this point of essential self-knowledge, knowledge in the deepest sense possible, begins from a clear decision to descend towards the other to the lowest possible common denominator – this was Joseph’s motivation in realizing all of his great dreams. This motivation allows us to interact at the very lowest level, yet also rise from that point to discover the truest, most essential point of knowledge and then descend below once more to succeed in manifesting that unity in practice.

[In Kabbalistic terms, Joseph “drew the bowstring” and descended from knowledge to foundation and its inner quality of truth. By power of this descent he rose and returned not just to the inner point of knowledge but to the essence of knowledge, recognition and appreciation and even higher to the crown and from there to infinity, and by doing so he redescended not only to kingdom as it is in Emanation but also to kingdom that descends into the three lower Worlds of Creation, Formation and Action.]

Joseph’s recognition of his brothers was this type of essential self-knowledge. This is alluded to in Rashi’s interpretation, “When they were handed over to him, he recognized that they were his brothers and felt compassion for them, although when he fell into their hands they did not recognize him to treat him with fraternal love.” From here we learn that true recognition manifests as compassion and love. This level of compassion is able to reach out even to those who have completely estranged themselves from any connection – the brothers did not act lovingly to Joseph but Joseph feels compassion for them. This is a profound level of inner knowledge that even a face-to-face relationship is unable to achieve.

But there is even more to be learnt from Joseph’s attitude. The concept of recognition alludes to a marital bond between husband and wife, as alluded to in Ruth’s words to Boaz, “why have I found favor in your eyes to recognize me, even though I am a stranger?” Indieed, these same three levels of recognition can manifest in a marital relationship:

  • Through superficial knowledge one can have a relatively superficial relationship that includes a list of rights and obligations, what I must do for you and what you must do for me (back-to-back).
  • When inner recognition is present there is true love between the couple and each one understands the other and truly identifies with him/her (face-to-face).
  • An essential knowledge of the other manifests in a sense of absolute unity that reaches out to embrace even a spouse who is still estranged and detached from their partner to connect to them with an essential bond, a bond of marriage. This is a face-to-back relationship that eventually brings the one with their back to the other to turn around and face him in true love.

Joseph’s secret was to aspire to this third level of “essential recognition” to bridge the gap between himself and his brothers by truly understanding them until they also reached a mutual understanding of him. Indeed, the sages explain that Rachel alluded to this talent when she said at Joseph’s birth, “May God add me another son,” this was Joseph’s talent to turn “another” into “a son” by recognizing them while they were still estranged from him.

As mentioned above, the consummate rectification of hatred will be when the process of connecting all the tribes of Israel is complete. When we know and appreciate one another from a point of inner recognition and inherent understanding, then we will merit the ultimate redemption.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 27th Kislev 5773

4 Comments

  1. Shalom Rabbi Ginsburgh. Remembering today…..Beautiful writing. Brought much joy. Thank you. Much longing…….Not so easy……..

    Blessings to you all!

  2. B*H. It gives me a desire to look beneath the surface and persevere. Todah Rabah!

  3. Thank you Rabbi for all of your beautiful teachings that brings joy, peace, & understanding/wisdom, in the lives of many. You have truly been a blessing to the world! Keep up the wonderful work. Blessings & Peace

  4. Lovely post, it echoed what I had been feeling about people who live in the same community as me, who have reached ‘rock bottom’ – in a pit of despair – I always thought I could do something for them, help them in some way, but as you say in your post:

    ‘When someone loses their will to live a fruitful and productive life, the communication line between us may be lost and I will be unable to find a way to connect with him. In such a case, all the compassion and empathy that I can muster will not suffice to transpass the chasm. Such an individual has lost his own knowledge of his inner self and he can be defined by the saying, “Whoever has no knowledge, it is forbidden to have compassion on him”; my own knowledge of him can no longer access his inner being.’

    I realise now that I can’t reach them, that only by their own self knowledge can they rise out of the pit, and if they don’t have a relationship with G-d then they are even further lost… Now not only is he in the pit but the pit is filling with water… Mind you, if you learn how to float, the water level can rise up and eventually lift you out of the pit… 🙂

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