Shaya Cohen -


Empathy: The Missing Ingredient

There is nothing wrong with being in an unequal relationship. Indeed, I think that every relationship is unequal in at least some respects. But that is OK. It is not a moral failing to be a baby, or a parent, or in a wheelchair.  This is not a bug: it is a feature. This is the way the world is supposed to be. It is not a moral failing to rely on other people, to form and grow networks and relationships. People are supposed to build together, to establish interlocking projects and lives.  

The danger to the system, indeed to the whole world, is when people think that they do not need others, when they can only think about themselves. The Torah calls this stage in life naar, a youthful thoughtlessness. But the Torah goes farther than this. Teenaged self-obsession is not a mere fad to be overlooked. If not corrected, it can become evil, a toxin that corrupts relationships and makes it impossible for people to help each other.

Joseph is described as a naar. Gen. 8:21 “The desires of a man’s heart are evil from his youth (naar).” In his case, it means that Joseph has an almost-shocking cluelessness about how others perceive him. He tells tales about his brothers, seemingly oblivious to how those tales make him look bad. He gives voice, without consideration, to private dreams, but does not realize that he is making enemies. In Egypt, Joseph continues the trend. He makes himself attractive, but does not anticipate that this means Poptiphar’s wife is growing increasingly interested in him. 

Again, his tin ear, his naar behavior, lands him in trouble after Potiphar’s wife, when scorned, ensures that Joseph goes to prison. But does he learn his lesson there? Not at all. Joseph fails to forge a memorable relationship with the Butler, who then forgets the man who interpreted his dream. 

Later, when Joseph talks to Pharoah, he suggest that Pharoah should find a “wise and discerning man” to administer the country in the coming times of feast and famine. This may not even have been cleverness: there is no sign that Joseph had expected that Pharoah would choose him.

The story continues, but Joseph’s naar qualities persist. His brothers arrive. Joseph greets them, they all bow down to him, and then Joseph remembers his dreams – that they would bow down to him. The dream has been fulfilled! So what does Joseph do at this point?

He could have rethought his earlier actions, leading to an apology for his earlier behavior. Whether the brothers were right or wrong for treating him badly, Joseph bore some responsibility for what happened: he told tales and was clearly insufferable.  He could have apologized for it, here or even later. But he does not do so.

Even after he reveals himself, Joseph declines to apologize to his brothers. It seemingly never occurs to him to do so. There is a lack of awareness when it comes to seeing himself in the eyes of others.  Instead, Joseph ascribes everything to G-d, taking responsibility for none of it. He actually falls back on Adam’s defense: “It is not my fault!” Joseph simply refuses to take responsibility for how others perceived him.

It gets worse. Joseph decides that his brothers should be shepherds, presumably because it would allow the Jewish Family to live in relative isolation, to remain distinct from their host nation. But he does not sell it that way to his family: instead, he tells his brothers that they should point out to Pharaoh that they are shepherds, because the Egyptians consider shepherds abominable. Even it though it was true that shepherding was a very low social state, it was hardly necessary for Joseph to point it out. “Hi! Welcome to your new country! Go tell their leader that your profession is shepherding, because the Egyptians really think that shepherding is disgusting!” What a way to make friends.  And the text supports the gratuitous nature of the remark – Pharaoh himself does not insult the profession, but seems to welcome the addition of capable skilled labor to manage his flocks and herds.

So it is not surprising to us that when Yaakov dies, Yosef’s brothers still fear and distrust him. But it is a complete shock to Yosef, who characteristically fails to connect to his brothers by saying, “Am I G-d?!” 

At the same time Yosef extends his obliviousness to the Egyptian people as well. When they go hungry, he allows them to sell everything they own to buy back the grain they had sold the government. At the end, they sell themselves, becoming slaves to Pharaoh. (some suggest that it is for this reason that the Egyptians are never punished for enslaving the Jews – it was merely middah kneged middoh, measure-for-measure turnabout). This was good business, but extremely bad social policy, and pursuing it meant either desiring that people should be enslaved, or being entirely thoughtless about the human consequences of one’s economic decisions.

The Torah teaches us about today’s politics and welfare policy.  In Egypt, Yosef took care of his brothers and all of the family – and yet because he failed to see things  the way others saw them, because he failed to understand their point of view, the welfare did not achieve its ends. On  the contrary: it bred resentment and distrust and fear.

This is the problem with all institutional forms of welfare and charity. Without a human connection, we can never change minds. Giving people “stuff” makes inner city blacks richer, using any material metric we could choose, than almost all of humanity throughout all of measured time. But because it is done by an institution, instead of by people and organizations and communities who take the time to understand, and connect with, and love the recipient, the results invariably backfire. 

Love is the missing ingredient. With it, we can endure almost everything. Without it, “giving” leads to a sense of entitlement, resentment, and empty lives.

There is nothing wrong with being a “taker.” We are all, in some ways, and at some times, takers. Indeed, I have argued that the Jewish version of slavery is nothing more or less than a patron/client relationship for when the client has fallen very far, and needs a mentor. There is nothing to apologize for in this, because it is a world away from the kind of institutional and intergenerational slavery that gave the practice a bad name in the 19th century. Unequal relationships are just fine – but they require both the giver and the taker to respect the other, to invest in the relationship such that both sides benefit as a result.

I think that while Joseph remains a naar, we are supposed instead to seek a relationship built around marriage. We need that other person, to serve as a feedback mechanism, another person who pushes, supports and opposes and – above all – helps you to see how others perceive you. When we can see things from different perspectives, then the resulting empathy and love make it possible for us to truly help one another.

Comments are welcome!

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