Vayeshev: Calling out the guilty


Don’t stand idly by the blood of your brother. Lo ta’amod adam re’acha. Lev. (19:16)

Yes, I know we’re not in Leviticus, but that’s what this parasha, Vayeshev, reminds me of. That’s exactly what Jacob’s sons did- they stood by as Joseph, the bratty little brother who had bratty dreams, was thrown in a pit and then sold to a wandering caravan of Ishmaelites. Maybe they didn’t kill him by their own hands, but they certainly they stood by and did nothing as his life was endangered.

I think of the two brothers, Reuben and Judah. Reuben was the eldest. Like other elder sons in the tribe, he was ultimately passed over for the “prime” spot by a younger brother. But unlike his uncle Esau and his great-uncle Ishmael, Reuben deserved it. Ishmael didn’t do anything wrong to Isaac, and neither did Esau do anything to Jacob. Granted, the Midrash bends over backwards to try to blame them both for their lot, but truthfully, they didn’t do anything wrong. Reuben , on the other hand, did. He “tried to save [Joseph] from them” (Gen 37:21) when he heard that the other brothers were going to kill Joseph, but suggesting that they cast him in a pit was basically letting him die. We have to go all the way back to Cain to find an older brother who kills the younger, though Reuben’s way was more passive. Reuben had a chance to save Joseph, and didn’t, though he knew they all were doing something very wrong.  He certainly stood idly by.

Judah wasn’t much better. His idea was to drag Joseph out of the pit and sell him to the passing Ishmaelites, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Gen 37: 27) Heartwarming, isn’t it. Presumably, Reuben wasn’t around during this plot twist, because we read that when Reuben returned to the pit where the brothers were having a picnic, and saw that Joseph wasn’t there, he cried out, “Where do I go?” (ana ani va?) Run after him, maybe? Nah. Better kill a goat, smear that awful tunic of Joseph’s with its blood, and tell Dad Joseph was eaten by a beast.

Reuben and Judah may have thought they were mitigating their brothers’ violence toward Joseph, but just because they didn’t lay a hand on him doesn’t mean they were guiltless. They literally stood idly by the blood of their brother.

Ultimately, Judah becomes the one on whose shoulders the Israelite nation are carried. Why? Wasn’t he just as guilty as Reuben or the others? One hint might be the story of Tamar and Judah later in this parasha , when he is called out for treating Tamar so badly. When Judah (refuses to allow her to get married, gets her pregnant, abandons her, and condemns her to die until at the last minute, she ID’s him as the baby’s daddy, and she calls him out on it in public. He admits his mistake, in public. It is from this Tamar/Judah line that King David emerges, generations later.

Maybe it did take being publically humiliated for Judah to come to his senses. Maybe we need more public humiliation of people who act badly. Recently, three “boys” (thugs) were finally arrested in Israel and admitted they set the Arab/Israeli bilingual, bicultural school “Hand in Hand” on fire and painted hateful, racist graffiti on the walls; we can’t stand idly by. We must call out the hate when we see it. Otherwise, we are just as guilty as Reuben and Judah. Otherwise, their behavior is endorsed by our not doing anything, by standing idly by. Tamar had the courage to call out to power.   We must do no less.


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