by Rabbi Dov Berl Wein
Dedicated to the memory of Chana bat Chaim
There is no fight quite so bitter and harmful as a family fight. The very closeness of the relationship between the parties involved intensifies the feelings of personal hurt and deep insult. Closeness always emphasizes the differences that exist and clouds over the basic agreements and shared values and world view that also exist. The history of the past century has shown that the divisions in the Jewish religious world are deep and seemingly unbridgeable even though the differing sides agree on the basic principles of faith and moral behavior. They disagree on clothing, customs, political matters and how to share the pie of jobs, welfare and governmental and private largesse. The Bolshevik Communist government of the Soviet Union hated and persecuted the Menshevik Communists, Socialists, Trotskyites and other assorted Marxist leftists to a greater degree than even their so-called Capitalist foes. It was a family fight and family fights become violent, illogical and very long lasting. Great institutions of Jewish learning have been broken up by internal disagreements as to the minute methodologies of study, the rights of succession and differences of personality. Rarely do these disputes involve true ideological differences - they almost always descend into personal feuds that are eventually intractable. From my long experience in the rabbinate I can unequivocally state that the bitterest disputes that never healed that I was witness to and attempted unsuccessfully to solve were between members of the same family, usually but not always over inheritance rights and other family matters that to the outside observer seemed relatively petty and unimportant. This is certainly an example of the sometimes perverse side of human nature.
Our rabbis have often taught us that the bitter internal disputes that have plagued Jewish history over the ages and are all too present in our current society as well can all be traced to the genetic imprint created within us by the story of Yosef and his brothers. Yosef is insensitive to the feelings of his brothers, suspects them of deeds that they have never committed and slanders them to their father. They in turn see in this young teenage brother of theirs an existential threat to their very existence and to the ability of the house of Yaakov to survive and prosper. Out of these misunderstandings personal enmities now develop. The ten brothers cannot speak peacefully or civilly to Yosef, so deep is their antagonism to him. They hardened their hearts and stopped up their ears when he wept and pleaded with them when he was in the pit of snakes and scorpions and then finally sold as a slave into Egyptian bondage. This also allows them to fool their ancient father and to witness his grief of decades length without revealing to him their culpability in the disappearance of Yosef. Wrongdoing always leads to further wrongdoings and a lie must inevitability to a cover up of further numerous lies. And all this because of a family fight over misinterpretations and erroneous assumptions of the motives and behavior of others who were bound together by blood and family.
Eventually it will take years and very changed external circumstances in order to reconcile Yosef and his brothers and make the house of Yaakov whole again. Common existential dangers, the enemy from outside, usually have a sobering effect upon simmering internal disputes. Only diehard ideologues continue to whistle past the graveyard, oblivious to the real dangers that confront us. I remember that once I witnessed a traffic policeman here in Jerusalem writing out a summons to someone who had allegedly illegally parked near a synagogue. Their argument grew heated and I was afraid that they could come to blows. Suddenly someone emerged from the synagogue and shouted to them: "We need two more Jews to complete our minyan!" The policeman and the car owner dutifully trudged into the synagogue to help make up the prayer quorum. After the prayer service concluded the policeman and his victim returned outside and immediately resumed their heated discussion as to whether the person’s car was indeed wrongfully parked. The external emergency had ended – the minyan was completed - and now they could repair to their own disputation once more. To a certain extent that vignette is a microcosm of Jewish social and political life today. It seems that we need a discernible external and immediate threat to allow us to forget and forego our internal squabbles at least temporarily. Let us hope that we will find a wiser and better way to deal with our family fights.