Hanukah is family time. It’s a time when most people in Israel enjoy a vacation, kids are off from school, and the air is filled with the waft of flavored doughnuts and festivity. There is also a sense of national pride as everyone regardless of observance, affiliation or lack of it thereof, recount the story of the Maccabi’s victory over the Greek armies in Israel. Fittingly, there are two vital statements which appear in this past week’s Torah portion which I believe are most significant both regarding our own families and on a grander scale regarding our nation.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Joseph and his brothers; the jealousy and even hatred that existed between them and the catastrophic consequences that ensued as a result of that hatred. The Torah describes the brother’s hatred towards Yosef as,
“…they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably”.
Obviously if someone ‘hates’ someone else they will not be able to speak to them ‘peaceably’; in fact they would not speak to them at all. The Torah is coming to reveal to us the formula for success regarding any relationship; communication. There was a breakdown in communication within the family of Jacob; Jacob did not converse with his ten sons as much as he communicated with and favored Joseph. The brothers in turn, did not speak much with their father and certainly not with Joseph, and the outcome was Joseph being sold to slavery in Egypt which marked the beginning of the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt as well. This entire episode not only conveys the importance of communication but it maintains that communicating is not only about talking, it’s about knowing how to ‘speak peaceably’. As an Orthodox rabbi who tries to remain current, I very often address why so many Orthodox youth in Israel leave the fold and opt for non-observance. While I do not think there is one answer regarding the source, there is one constant which should never be compromised between parents and their children regardless of their differences as stark as they might be; the ability to ‘speak peaceably’. To ‘speak peaceably’ means to conduct a tranquil tone and intonation. To ‘speak peaceably’ means to incorporate patience, understanding and consideration. Most importantly, to ‘speak peaceably’ means to listen attentively.
Perhaps Jacob did speak with his sons but he did not ‘speak peaceably’; he probably did not have heart to heart conversations with them to appreciate each one of their personalities and accentuate their strengths. In fact it appears he only does this when he is on his death bed and he offers each son a blessing in accordance with their unique personalities. What Jacob did immediately prior to his death, does not appear to be something he did while he was living. Perhaps the brothers and Joseph did speak to one another but they did not ‘speak peacebly’. They did not enjoy a camaraderie as many brothers do, they did not attempt to understand each other’s feelings, and they were uninterested in preserving a familial relationship.
Unfortunately our history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Approximately four years ago I started Makom Meshutaf, an organization which promotes Jewish programming without a religious agenda to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim throughout the country. Makom Meshutaf creates initiatives for the Jewish people in Israel to ‘speak peaceably’. A week ago we ran a panel in Kibbutz Tzora which consisted of a secular Israeli, religious Zionist and a Haredi woman. It was a fascinating program and something we are promoting in kibbutzim throughout the country to demonstrate that there are differences between all of us and we need to engage in dialogue (we hope to create the same structure panel with representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities as well). The only disappointing part of the program was that the secular Israeli panelist expressed anti-sentiment and was blatantly bitter towards the other panelists and their beliefs, so much so that even the audience which consisted mostly of secular Israelis from the kibbutz itself was disappointed. While I understand that people enjoy a variety of perspectives, we have to at least be able to ‘speak peaceably’ and show respect towards other’s opinions. Interestingly, not only was the Haredi woman the best orator on the panel but she also appeared most confident in her position yet most tolerant of every participant as well and the secular audience were most considerate of her position simply because she ‘spoke peaceably’.
A few weeks ago I wrote about our daughter, Nechama who is a chayelet in the IDF and the only observant girl in her unit. She called me this past week and told me that as part of her course they have an exam every week and there is always a random bonus question on the exam. That week the bonus question was to transcribe the words to the song ‘Echad Mi Yodea – Who knows one?’ from the Passover Seder. Sadly, Nechama was the only one who got the bonus question correct, however, following the exam all the chayalot approached Nechama to ask her what the bonus question answer was; she ended up teaching them the entire song and ‘Echad Mi Yodea’ has become the ‘theme song’ of their unit.
This week Nechama’s sergeant, who is non-observant, had a heart to heart with each soldier privately. Nechama expressed to her that she was a bit disappointed in the lack of motivation at times by some of the girls to which her sergeant responded,
“Remember Nechama all the girls who are here are secular, which means that they have to serve in the army but they don’t necessarily want to be here. You on the other hand are observant, you had other options to choose from other than the army, but you chose to serve. Between you and me, as an observant girl you are motivated because you believe in something. It is this belief which provides you with resilience and a strength that other people don’t have”.
Only when we ‘speak peaceably’ can we learn to respect our diversities, unite for a common purpose, and begin to wonder, ‘who knows one?’
Later in the same story Jacob sends Joseph to see his brothers by saying,
“Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers…”.
Jacob is not sending Joseph merely as a messenger; he is sending him as an ambassador of peace. He wants him to ‘speak peaceably’ to his brothers after all of the ill will that has festered between them. He asks Joseph to ‘look into the welfare’ of his brothers by seeing them in a more positive light; but by then it was too late hence the unfortunate outcomes that ensued.
Perhaps it is not too late for us. Perhaps this Hanukah we can put aside our differences and learn to ‘speak peaceably’ to one another. Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that our resilience and strength stems from our ability to ‘look into the welfare of our brothers’; and perhaps this Hanukah will mark the first time in history that we all begin to see the light.