May 18, 2024
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Yaakov’s death unleashed fear and terror amongst the brothers. Free of the restraining influence of his father, Yosef would certainly avenge his sale as a slave. The brothers were so petrified, they could not face Yosef directly — dispatching their pleas for his mercy through third-party intermediaries. Desperate to avoid Yosef’s wrath, they concocted a white lie about Yaakov’s death-bed instructions for their pardon. It is hard to imagine Yosef actually “falling” for this transparent lie. Dishonesty, deception and indirect communication are telltale signs of a toxic relationship — that is lacking any semblance of trust.

 

Triggers

Sadly, there were two “trigger events” which stoked their worst fears. Twice, Yosef’s innocent behavior was grossly misinterpreted by his suspicious brothers.

The first crisis — as reported in the midrash — developed when Yosef began to dine alone, rather than sharing his meals with his brothers. While Yaakov was alive, Yosef had dined alongside his brothers — sitting at the head of the table alongside his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over 20 years. At this stage, however, Yosef felt uncomfortable positioning himself at the table “ahead” of his older brothers — especially ahead of Reuven the firstborn, and Yehuda, the newly-minted leader. Unwilling to disgrace his brothers, Yosef took the selfless decision to dine privately. Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, the brothers regarded this unselfish decision as a micro-aggression against them, and their fears got the better of their rational judgment. A noble and magnanimous decision — intended to protect the dignity of the brothers — was misconstrued as hostile behavior.

The second crisis unfolded during their joint voyage to Israel to bury Yaakov. At some point during the journey, Yosef made a personal detour to the pit into which he was flung, and from which he was sold off into slavery. This is a touching scene of a wounded man seeking closure for the dreadful trauma which wrecked his youth. The image evokes pity and commiseration, but the wary brothers didn’t view it that way. In their distorted reasoning, they assumed that Yosef had returned to the scene of the crime in order to plan his revenge. Suspicion muddled their judgment, leading to unsubstantiated panic.

Two ships passed each other in the night. Yosef was preserving their dignity, but the jaded brothers assumed he was antagonistic toward them. Yosef also visited the site of a past personal trauma, but the brothers assumed he was conspiring his revenge. Why couldn’t they understand one another? Because all communication had collapsed.

 The Tragedy of Miscommunication

The greatest tragedies in life occur due to lack of communication. The brothers had not lived together for over 20 years, and even after being reunited, they led very separate lives. The brothers lived in the family enclave of Goshen; while Yosef hobnobbed amongst the noblemen and magicians of Egyptian palaces. The lack of face-to-face communication led to suspicion and distrust, innocent actions were misconstrued, and sincere intentions caused irrational fear and panic. Without communication, trust erodes; without trust, relationships crash. Their fractured relationship was at an all-time low.

 Honest Communication

This broken relationship could only be repaired by healthy and honest communication. To his great credit, Yosef — at the tail end of sefer Bereishit — finally engages in healthy communication. To his credit — instead of fleeing from the complicated situation — he embraces it and confronts the issue. His difficult conversation with his brothers leads to reconciliation, and stands out as the healthiest communication of the entire book of Bereishit.

Firstly — and most importantly — Yosef speaks directly with his brothers, rather than forwarding frantic messages through friends and liaisons. Direct face-to-face communication is always more effective and more authentic. It allows for body language, subtlety and interactive dialogue, rather than volleying unilateral statements back and forth.

Secondly — for the first time in their relationship — Yosef actually listens to his brothers and responds to their worries. Active listening sits at the heart of communication, but sadly, we are often preoccupied with formulating our brilliant responses — rather than actively listening to others. In the past, Yosef was far too busy setting a trap for his brothers to actually listen to them and hear their concerns. After Yehuda’s long soliloquy pleading for clemency, Yosef unilaterally announced his true identity and inquired about his father’s well-being — but, he completely ignored Yehuda’s grievances.

By contrast — during this repaired conversation — Yosef listens carefully to his brothers’ anxieties, empathizes with their fear and tries to comfort them. Twice, he reassures them not to be afraid of him and, as the Torah remarks, he finally speaks to their hearts — rather than issuing authoritative one-sided announcements or revelations. As in soft conversation, not loud shouting. Beware of those who only have one decibel level, and it is always loud. Beware the shouters, who are deaf to their hearts and to yours.

More important than anything else, Yosef cries with his brothers. Earlier, when he revealed his identity, he had also cried — but it was a roar of personal anguish, rather than a broken hearted and tender crying. Tears come in many varieties, and this was the first time that he had shed tender tears of sympathy and compassion. Only when their tears mix, and their eyes meet, can their hearts blend and begin to mend.

Finally, during his honest conversation with his brothers, Yosef doesn’t sugarcoat the past. It is easy to brush thorny issues under the carpet, but they will always come back to haunt a relationship. Left unattended, tensions fester and erupt with greater force and inflict greater damage than they would have caused, had they been addressed earlier. Yosef acknowledged their malicious intent, but conceded that divine intervention had converted their shameful crime into good fortune for Yosef and hunger relief for the family. Honest confrontation of difficult issues lies at the heart of genuine communication, and Yosef’s honesty enabled the brothers to purge their unbearable guilt. Once trust had been restored between Yosef and his brothers, the relationship could move forward.

 The Bridge of Trust

Ironically — one day — the resurrected trust would serve Yosef well. His own death-bed plea to his brothers to be buried in Israel, depended upon the trust he had rebuilt with his brothers. Yosef — once the mighty and imperial ruler of Egypt — is now at the mercy of his previously scorned brothers. Such is the nature of human experience: the strong grow weak, the mighty grow old and, eventually, we all realize how deeply dependent we are upon each other. It never pays to burn bridges, because you always walk back across them.

Yosef must fully trust his brothers to pass along his request to future generations. Yosef’s burial is centuries away, and he must trust his brothers to transmit his desperate message to those in the future. It is a good thing he worked so hard and invested so much in rebuilding the ruptured trust with his brothers. Otherwise, he would have died uncertain of his fate. In the end, emotional investment and hard conversations always pay dividends to a relationship.

 Communication Deficiency

There are multiple reasons for the breakdown of trust in modern society, but — chief among them — is the deterioration of our interpersonal communication. The internet age and the emergence of social media have established alternate modes of communication, empowering us to more effortlessly share information and resources. Every blessing though, carries a curse, and the internet is damaging our interpersonal communication skills. The internet encourages quicker and more efficient communication, but is wrecking face-to-face communication skills. Spending far too much time staring at screens, we are uncomfortable looking into people’s eyes. Because the eyes are the gateways to the soul, direct eye contact yields connection and social bonding. I constantly urge students to maintain eye contact during conversations. It is always easier to look at a screen, but it doesn’t look back.

Preoccupied with long-distance, impersonal communication, we are losing the ability to appreciate non-verbal cues, body language or context. There is far more to communication than words, but they don’t come across in WhatsApp.

Emojis are gutting our communication of deep emotions, substituting simplistic and plastic emotional responses for actual feelings. Emojiism is affecting our ability to discern our own deeper emotions and is crippling our ability to express them. We are becoming emotionally flatlined. Our emotional inner world is too complex to be simplified into a few dozen emoji faces. Emojis are diluting our emotions.

Healthy and trustful relationships are built upon genuine and honest personal communication. We must protect human communication from the great age of communication. Life is ironic in that way.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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