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Brotherly Strife — and Its Price

The dangers of disunity to the fate of the Jewish People, and the power of unity


The story of Yosef and his brothers takes up most of the last four parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis, a pretty good indication of its importance. And indeed, resonances of the tensions between the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel are found throughout our holy texts. Taken together, they convey a message of the dangers of disunity to the fate of the Jewish People, and, at the same time, the power of unity.

Every year, during Mussaf of Yom Kippur, we recite “Eleh Ezkarah,” over the Asarah Harugei Malchus. That section begins with the ruler asking an august group of the greatest of the Tannaim: What is the punishment for one who kidnaps one of his brethren and sells him into slavery?

When they reply that the penalty is death, he inquires further whether the penalty was ever paid for the brothers’ sale of Yosef. Told that it was not, the ruler tells them that as the finest assemblage since the days of the children of Yaakov, it is they who will pay the penalty with their lives.

In The Queen You Thought You Knew, Rabbi David Fohrman detects a subplot of reconciliation between the children of Leah and the children of Rachel in Megillas Esther. The resonances between the Biblical text and Megillas Esther are striking. Yehudah’s words as he offers himself in place of Binyamin as a servant to the Egyptian viceroy, “For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me, lest I see the evil that will befall my father” (Bereishis 44:34), find their parallel in Esther’s plea to Achashveirosh to repeal Haman’s decree, “how can I see the evil that will befall my nation....” (Megillas Esther 8:6).

Similarly, Esther’s words, “v’ka’asher avdati, avdati — if I am lost, so be it, I shall be lost,” after agreeing to go into Achashveirosh unbidden, echo Yaakov’s words after finally assenting to Binyamin being brought down to Egypt, “ka’asher shacholti, shacholti — And if I am to lose [Binyamin], then so be it; I shall lose [him] (Bereishis 43:14).

The events of Purim take place at a time when only two tribes are left intact, Yehudah and Binyamin. Esther and Mordechai’s identity as members of the tribe of Binyamin is emphasized from the start. Rather than seeking to save only the much smaller group of her brethren from the tribe of Binyamin, Esther risks her life to save all the Yehudim. In doing so, she repays Yehudah for having offered himself as a servant in place of Binyamin, even after acknowledging Yaakov’s greater love for Binyamin’s mother, Rachel, and his special bond to Binyamin.

At the Seder, with the eating of karpas, we are also reminded of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. The word karpas appears only once in Tanach, in the opening verses of Megillas Esther. There it does not refer to something eaten, but to one of the hangings of fine wool adorning Achashveirosh’s palace during the opening banquet.

Rashi, in his commentary on Chumash, specifically draws the link between the kesones pasim, which Yaakov gave to Yosef, and the karpas mentioned in Megillas Esther. Rashi defines pasim as fine wool, and cites as a parallel the karpas mentioned in Megillas Esther. The kesones pasim was viewed by the sons of Leah as a sign of Yaakov’s greater love for Yosef. It further fueled their jealously and made it impossible for them to speak to Yosef peacefully. When we dip the karpas at the Seder, we are therefore reminded of how the Yosef’s brothers dipped his kesones pasim in the blood of a slaughtered goat before presenting it to Yaakov.

That hint, suggests Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein in his The Haggadah Experience, is part of the genus (disgrace) with which sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim must begin and forms the prelude for the arrival of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt.

THE LESSON from the story of Yosef and his brothers of the threat to the Jewish People from fratricidal hatred has apparently been lost of late in Israel. One of Israel’s greatest strengths has always been its national cohesion in the face of a multitude of external threats. Israelis have consistently rated at the top of all international polls of patriotism, and that has been borne out by the willingness of citizens to shoulder the twin burdens of compulsory military service and high taxes to ensure their ability to defend themselves.

But the last three months have exposed very deep divisions in Israeli society. And one can only imagine the joy those divisions have brought to the mullahs in Iran. They must ask themselves: How could such a deeply divided country muster the determination that would be required to attack our nuclear facilities, especially given the massive counterattacks against Israel and Jews around the world such a strike would trigger?

I recently asked a legal expert who played a large role in the drafting of the proposed judicial reforms whether he was prepared to acknowledge mistakes made in the formulation of the reforms themselves or in the manner in which they were presented. He declined to get involved in “would’ve, should’ve” speculation.

The sole miscalculation he acknowledged was: We never dreamed how far the opposition would go to damage the security and economy of Israel. Yoav Gallant must having been looking into an abyss of refusals to report for reserve duty and to execute orders in the standing army, in order publicly call for a halt to the judicial reform legislation — a move he almost surely knew would result in his firing as defense minister.

He has been stressing for months the magnitude of the different threats facing Israel on multiple fronts. And he obviously believed that the entire command structure of the military was on the verge of a breakdown that would render it incapable of meeting those threats.

The warnings that judicial reforms would result in billions of dollars being withdrawn from the Israeli economy made no sense on their face. Just the opposite. The possibility that the Court would upend agreements signed by the government with foreign investors, as it did with respect to the energy companies developing the Mediterranean gas fields, has made Israel a less reliable and stable business environment than it would otherwise be.

But that constant stream of dire predictions became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and led to billions of dollars being withdrawn from Israel, either punitively or as a safety measure.

The situation reminds me of our pick-up baseball games after school. Inevitably, disputes would arise about close plays, and equally inevitably, the one who had brought the ball would threaten to take it home with him unless the dispute was resolved in his team’s favor.

And that’s approximately what’s happening in Israel today. The message of the demonstrators is: All the sacrifices made on Israel’s behalf and all the acumen we have contributed to its success come with a condition: Final word must rest with 15 judges of the Supreme Court, who are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and secular and will always remain so, no matter what the demographic composition of the country. Aharon Barak’s remarkable achievement was to turn Israel’s High Court into the most powerful and far-reaching in terms of determining national norms of any supreme court in the world, without even a constitution to work with or legislative warrant, and make it seem like the natural order of things.

Barak and his successors have completely stone-walled over the years any talk of reform, even such an innocuous and obviously just proposal as one to remove from the court president the right to handpick the judges who will hear crucial cases in order to ensure the outcome he or she desires.

Yet if the judicial reforms or some variant thereof fail, the current government coalition will not be without blame. It has done everything possible to justify fears that majoritarian rule would ride roughshod over every proper norm of governmental behavior. Too many bills tailor-made to serve the interests of particular individuals. Too much flexing of muscles by the junior coalition partners to demonstrate to their voters that they can deliver the goods. (As the late Ruth Gavison used to point out, when the High Court determines every norm as a matter of law, public officials do not develop any extra-legal equivalents of the British concept of “not the done thing,” which act as a powerful constraint on behavior.)

Sara Haetzni-Cohen, head of the right-wing activist group My Israel, and an ardent supporter of the judicial reforms as “one of the most important and significant legal and policy initiatives the right has brought to the table in many years,” nevertheless decries the behavior of the coalition:

“Almost every day we awaken to another idiotic bill or embarrassing public statement produced by this coalition. The list of narrow and self-interested bills, whose purpose is to preserve power or serve narrow interests, grows ever longer. The gifts law [allowing unchecked gifts to public servants], the French law [immunizing the prime minister from prosecution], the law against recordings [prohibiting journalists from publicizing recordings of politicians without consent], the Deri law [to allow convicted politicians to serve as ministers], the Police Investigations Department law [weakening oversight of police in cases of police violence], the law to seize control of the Central Elections Committee, the Western Wall law [that stipulates prison time for women dressed immodestly at the holy site], the hametz law [allowing hospitals to bar food that isn’t kosher for Passover], and more….

“It all looks like it’s being done flippantly, with arrogance and hubris, driven by whims and the desire for momentary media headlines. MKs whom we elected to bring change and a new message have brought us mainly embarrassment.”

She concludes with a sentiment that most of us who are identified with a particular party or faction have felt at one time or another: “And you know something, dear coalition? I’m sick of it. I don’t want to defend you when you embarrass me, don’t want to support the irresponsible initiatives you permit yourself to propose, without understanding that every little movement on your part creates waves of protest and disgust on the outside.”

IN THE MONTH OF GEULAH, on the eve of the Seder, we must not end on a down note. We just finished celebrating on Purim how a badly divided nation — mefurad u’mefuzar — achieved a high degree of unity and rediscovered its eternal role as Am HaTorah.

Even today, my conversations with people in the workplace and on university campuses in Israel suggest that normal collegial relationships and discussions are continuing as before. Most encouraging — to me, in any event — were the videos from the recent anti-reform protests in Bnei Brak. The demonstrators came to provoke. Some threw down bills — real or not, I don’t know. Nor do I know whether the message was “we support you” or “your Knesset votes can be purchased for money.”

But the residents of Bnei Brak did not take the bait. They either stayed home or greeted the demonstrators with cholent, dancing, and actual discussions. The video of an older demonstrator, wrapped in an Israeli flag, standing still and sobbing as a loudspeaker played “Shalom Aleichem” and childhood memories flooded back, quickly went viral. May it be a harbinger of more such shared experiences to come.

And above all, we must not forget that the same Hashem Who took us out of Mitzrayim also took us to Him as a nation at that moment, and He will continue to guide and protect us forever.

Chag kasher v’sameiach.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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