The Other is My Brother: From Yosef’s Dreams to Freddie Gray

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion, Yosef tells his brothers of his dreams to his brother. There we read:

Now Israel loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them: ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ And his brethren said to him: ‘Shall you indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said: ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.’ And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said to him: ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’ And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind. (Gen. 37:3-11).

While they stop short of fratricide, eventually the brothers’ envy and hatred moved them to sell Yosef into slavery. Why do they hate him so much? Is it all over a coat or is there something more in these dreams?

Rabbi Riskin taught in the name of  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l that the brothers’ hatred towards Yosef was a denial of the world view he expresses in his dreams. The brothers were shepherds and wanted to preserve their traditional way of life. They maintain the flocks of sheep as they are, utilizing the milk and cheese for food, the wool and skins for garments and shelter. As shepherds they had time to contemplate and to meditate upon God. In Yosef’s dream we see that he is predicting his departure from the flocks and even from the familial and sheltered land of Canaan in favor of the more scientific and sophisticated Egypt. The dreams of sheaves express the cultural revolution of agriculture over shepherding, creativity and change over the preservation of the status quo. The brothers wish to remain in their ancestral home and familial occupation; Yosef senses that the world – even the universe (sun, moon and stars) – is beckoning , and necessity demands a change of venue and profession if Israel is to prevail. They sell him into slavery in hope of preserving the world they know and stymie his dream of progress.

It is interesting to hold this up against Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s inspired book Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his teenage son about the complexity of growing up as a black man in America, he writes:

Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm late-November day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you. That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street would never be punished.

For Coates America’s status quo is a dream built upon the slavery and even the fratricide of black men. How can we call this a dream if it someone’s nightmare? As the first officer goes on trial in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore we need to take stock of institutional racism in this country. There is no doubt that change is hard. Like Yosef’s brothers we need to be willing to give up our own dream’s of the status quo in the name of progress. Though it might take time, we need to realize that the other is my brother.

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