Watching Our Enemies Squirm?

December 14th: Vayigash
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There is a verse in the Sabbath Psalm that speaks to Joseph’s potential mindset. Abandoned to slavers (or, in some versions, sold to slavers) by his brothers, forgotten by his family, misjudged by his employers, and forgotten by his friend, Joseph has lots of enemies. He could have mused with the words of Psalm 92, “The wicked flourish like grass—those who do evil are blossoming!” He might have continued, “Yet they are doomed to destruction…See how Your enemies, O Lord, see how Your enemies shall perish—how all who do evil shall be scattered.” Then, he could have imagined a day of release and reckoning, “You lift up my cause in pride, and I am bathed in freshening oil. I shall see the defeat of my foes; my ears shall hear of their fall.” (Psalm 92.8-12)

Though he was a victim for a long time, Joseph is now a major figure in Egypt and in charge of all the food. When his brothers arrive, asking on bended knee for provisions, Joseph is transported back to his youth and to his victimhood. The brothers do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. What should he do with his enemies?

His response is interesting. He does not tell him who he is, but instead plays a kind of “cat and mouse game” with them. Is he trying to figure out what to do? Is he testing their moral fiber? Is he setting them up for a dramatic and humiliating moment of reckoning? The story gets rather lengthy, and one can imagine significant emotional turmoil in Joseph’s head as each step of the drama goes on. Finally, after pushing the brothers to the limit, one brother, Judah, stands up and self-sacrificingly tries to save Benjamin from the trap Joseph has set, and Joseph can no longer control his emotions. He has seen his enemies on bended knee before him. He has manipulated them and can dispatch them in any way he chooses. But, the family love comes back to him, and he sees them as brothers and not as enemies. “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” (Genesis 45.3)

We all have our enemies, and we often need to know how to defend ourselves against them. God comes to tell us, however, that there may be remedies to enmity. When we can de-escalate conflict or hostility, when we can remove the element of danger and anxiety, there is a possibility of seeing the other as one of us. This is not always possible, but sometimes it can be the case.

In the midst of hostility, how do we hope to see our enemies? The Psalmist’s answer—and often ours—is that we want to see them weakened, frightened and at our mercy. We want the threat removed, but do we really want them dead?  At our better moments, I believe we can regard our enemies as God approaches sinners. As we are taught during the High Holy Days: “This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.”

The analogy is not completely accurate because we are not God, and our enemies can do us real harm. However, once we have defended ourselves, we can aspire to be like God in hoping that our enemies turn from their evil ways—and behave like friends.

In so many instances of human conflict, the ideal resolution is of rapprochement, with a violent destruction being, at best, a tragic consequence. Remember the Midrash about the angels singing joyfully after the Splitting of the Red Sea. They are exuberant, but God shushes them with, “How can you rejoice when My children are floating dead in the sea?”  Though the Egyptians are evil and thoroughly deserving of their punishment, they too are God’s children, and God is grief-stricken at the consequences of their actions. God’s ideal resolution would have been for them to repent and return to the hospitable and just ways of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph and who welcomed the Hebrew strangers with, “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt…” (Genesis 45.18)

A number of years ago, I was part of a group of interfaith leaders invited to attend the consecration of the new Roman Catholic Bishop. It was a beautiful and spiritual event, and, toward the end, we were all invited to come up to their bimah and greet the new bishop. When I reached out to shake his hand, he said to me, “I am Joseph, your brother.” It puzzled me for a minute because his name is John, but then I realized that he was quoting the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Though the Roman Catholic Church has been an enemy of the Jewish people for over 1500 years, the last 100 years have seen a major change in its thinking. Repenting in both theology and behavior, the Church has reached out to the Jewish community and has engaged us in many positive ways. In fact, the Catholics have helped to lead other branches of Christianity in renouncing supersessionism and other vestiges of anti-Semitism and engendering better and more respectful interfaith relations.

So when Bishop John Ricard said, “I am Joseph your brother,” he was expressing ex cathedra (because he was sitting in his Bishop’s chair) the new practice of the Roman Church to see Jews as brothers and sisters and fellow believers.

Do we forget the tragedies and atrocities of the past? Of course not. However, we should give thanks that God’s spirit of tolerance and respect is alive and well in our sister religion. It is a good resolution to an old problem.

Though we can understand the yearning of the Psalmist to “see the defeat of his foes,” our Tradition also encourages repentance and reconciliation. As we learn in the Talmud (Berachot 10a, Midrashically interpreting Psalm 104.35): “Some criminals in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood were giving him a great deal of trouble, and Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: ‘How can you think that such a prayer is permitted? Is it written, “Sinners will cease?” No. It is written “Sins will cease.” Pray for an end to sin, and the criminals will stop sinning.’ Rabbi Meir prayed for them, and they repented.”