Shabbat Shemot: Do You Know Joseph?

A famous aphorism of our time: it’s not what you know but who.
This is the compelling rationale offered for, among other things, the decline of political civility and bipartisanship in our national legislature. Once upon a time, it is noted, our representatives in D.C. lived there with their families, attended little league games together, shared the same barbers and PTAs – and they got along much better “across the aisle.” Now they all fly home each weekend, and are strangers to each other.
And once upon a time, we all saw more of each other – before television, and certainly before earphones on our music devices. The sociologist Robert Putnam has traced the decline of our ability to resolve our differences “over the backyard fence”, suggesting that the increase in our willingness to sue each other comes from our lack of knowing each other.
And in this week’s parashah, the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt is traced to this very same problem: “There arose a king who knew not Joseph.” (Ex.1.8).
Separateness led to estrangement, to lack of trust, to forgetting that the other is also human.
We see the consequences of estrangement everywhere in our world: the Rohingya of Myanmar are being brutalized and murdered because they are depicted as aliens, literally called by the Buddhist majority “less than human.” In my own career I have watched people sue each other because they did not want to talk about that which divided them. And in our own small community, it happens as well. We don’t know each other as well as we need to, to be the village we want to be. We’re private, or we think they are; we’re tired, or they’re too busy.
But it is also said from time immemorial that no one has ever been too busy to do what one truly wants to do.
Our good old Jewish tradition, subversive as always, insists that we must do better to know each other, lest our world suffer the consequences:
1. we are obligated to judge each other l’khaf zekhut, a Hebrew phrase that means that we are obligated to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Has someone spoken to you harshly? Before you get angry, consider what may have caused their upset. Exercise your compassion rather than your righteous indignation.
2. we are obligated to refrain from lashon hara’, speaking ill of another. Jewish law forbids us to complain about someone when they’re not in the room, and condemns the cowardice of asking another person to let someone know how you feel – anonymously.
3. we are obligated to ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, consider each other with the same regard we want for ourselves. Be kind. Even when others are not kind to you.
A Rabbi once asked a student, “Yakov, how is your fellow student Moshe?”
Moshe responded, “I don’t know.”
The Rabbi was amazed. “Yakov, you study with Moshe every day,
you eat with each other, you pray together;
how can you say you don’t know whether Moshe is well or ill,
happy or sad, struggling or serene?”
That’s how it is with us. We study together, we share a table, we pray in the same shul; but do you know me? do I know you? and what happens if we don’t?
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