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In the Era of Culture Wars: What We Can Learn From the Story of Joseph and His Brothers

The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Roly Matalon’s d’var Torah for Parashat Vayigash on December 11, 2021. Watch the full d’var Torah here, embedded below, or listen on SoundCloud.

How do we interpret the journey of our lives, with all their pain and complexity and challenges and struggle?

Do we see it like Yosef, or do we see it like Yaakov?

In Yosef, we find a sense of purpose, a sense that life has served a goal greater than himself,  that he’s been of service, that he’s been sent through his suffering. Yosef opens up to empathy and forgiveness. He uses his suffering to open up to empathy and forgiveness. In Yaakov, we find a sense of bitterness and deep disappointment but beyond our personal lives.

We live at a time of great deficit of empathy and solidarity, and a great deficit of hope. We live at a time of really unbridled individualism, of “me-firstism.” In our country, a culture war is raging over race, gender identity, education, science, vaccines, abortion, guns, climate.

Wherever we look there is bitterness and disappointment. There’s profound anger, and there is hopelessness all across the map and all across the political map. There is profound anger and a sense of hopelessness. There is little or no empathy in solidarity, and there’s a competition. Who’s been more deprived, who’s more forgotten, who’s more oppressed, who’s more entitled, who is more morally superior. 

Everyone and every group is involved in their own pain: in the righteousness, the misfortune, the suffering of their own group, in the victimhood of their own group. Perhaps, there is something we can learn from the story of Yosef and his brothers. Perhaps we can change the present narrative and forge, as Aviva Zornberg says, a therapeutic narrative, full of expressions of relationship, to paraphrase her. Out of the brokenness, maybe [what] can emerge a rethinking of our past and our present, a redemptive reframing of the story like Yosef did, that will bring the hope of empathy, of solidarity and wholeness.

Watch the full D’var Torah:

J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi and rosh kehilah (head of congregation), was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York...

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