Trying to Learn from Our Mistakes

Jacob’s life can be seen as a series of miscommunications. His parents do not talk to each other before Isaac decides to bless his children (and then his wife, Rivkah, makes Yaakov steal the one designated for Esau). Jacob himself seems to have a hard time talking with Esau, since the brothers seemingly had almost nothing to do with one another.

So perhaps when Yosef tells his family of his dream of the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him, the Torah tells us that Yaakov “kept the matter.” Why?

My son, Shai, suggests that the verse is causally linked with what comes next. In that next verse, Yaakov sends Yosef after his brothers. The pretense is to report back on their progress with the flock. But perhaps Yaakov has a different goal in mind. His specific words to Yosef are to, “see the peace of your brothers.”

Perhaps Yaakov is trying to fix the miscommunications in his own life, by prescribing communication between his sons.

The location of this intended rapprochement is also significant: Shechem is the place where Yaakov had become “complete” which is a word that is very similar to “at peace.” Perhaps Yaakov chose the spot specifically because it was the first place Yaakov went after he finally made peace with his own brother, Esau.

It is not clear that Yosef understood the hint in the repeated use of “peace” in the instruction to seek out his brothers. And alas, as we learned a few verses before (37:4), the brothers “could not speak to him peaceably.” Amicable peace requires reciprocity, and there was none. Yosef comes to his brothers, and without any account of words spoken, the Torah tells us that the brothers threw Yosef into the pit.

Why did Yaakov’s attempt fail? In Yaakov’s own life, more communication in his home before he stole his brother’s blessing may well have avoided the problems that followed. But Yosef and his brothers were not merely quiet to each other: the brothers actively hated Yosef, and were no longer willing to listen. Yaakov, by showing open favoritism between his wives and his children, had helped to cause the problem, which means that the onus was at least partially on Yaakov to fix the problem. Lack of communication may have defined Yaakov’s early life, but Yosef’s problems were the result of too much communication of things that do not encourage a cohesive family.

P.S. This understanding may change how we see Yaakov’s grief at the news that Yosef was ripped apart by an animal. Instead of seeing Yosef as someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Yaakov may well have seen Yosef as trying to make peace with his brothers, a situation that fell tragically short of a resolution. Yaakov may also have been blaming himself, since he had sent Yosef out in the first place.

Comments are welcome!