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A higher standard
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A higher standard

Vayeshev | Genesis 37:1-40:23

Biblical place names often mean something, so when the unnamed stranger informs Joseph that his brothers have gone to Dotan, Rashi wonders about the place’s name. It might be just a name, but he allows for the possibility that it refers to the Hebrew dat, from which we get the modern word for “religion.” In Rashi’s day, however, and in the classical rabbinic era before him, it didn’t mean “religion” per se, but, rather, “a way of thinking.” 

We see it in the marriage ceremony, where (traditionally) the groom says to his bride, “Be thou consecrated to me…k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael,” according to the dat of Moses and Israel. Dat Moshe, say the rabbis, represents the laws that are supposed to govern the relationship between husband and wife; dat Yisrael (also called dat Y’hudit, “the dat of Jews”) comprises the non-legal understandings that should constitute it.

Dat, then, is both legal and extra-legal. With marriage, for example, dat Moshe is law while dat Yisrael (or Y’hudit) is custom — the understandings that have less force than law but are nonetheless the way married Jews are supposed to think and act toward one another.

Dotan is dat (“a way of thinking”) with a grammatical ending for “our.” The brothers, said the stranger, are in Dotan, “Our Way of Thinking.” Joseph duly finds them “in Dotan” — he finds them “in our way of thinking.”

But whose way of thinking? Why didn’t the stranger say, “Your way of thinking” or “Their way of thinking”? And who is this stranger — who includes himself in the name by saying “our”?

The text calls him a “man” — the generic term for a human being, especially striking because others in the story, the Midianites and Ishmaelites, get named according to their tribes. 

The absence of a tribal name for the “man” is telling; if the stranger is “no tribe at all,” he must stand for “everyone,” any human being at all. The “our” in Dotan is the way any human being might think and behave. 

Alas, that turns out to be the problem. We would like to think Joseph’s brothers, our Jewish progenitors, would be more ethical, compassionate, and just than everyone else. But they weren’t; they were jealous and small-minded, vengeful to the point of considering fratricide. They sold their own brother into slavery, and then covered up their act by lying to their father. Every Yom Kippur, in fact, we recite a martyrology that goes so far as to imagine that the persecution of the Jews in Roman times was a delayed punishment for the brothers’ crime against Joseph. 

To be sure, the brothers were not all of one mind. Judah, say the rabbis, was not pure evil; he could have convinced the brothers to spare Joseph but he hadn’t the courage to do so. Reuben did try to save Joseph — but failed. As the stranger pointing to Dotan is “everyone,” so too the brothers in Dotan are anyone, any group of people at all, in this case Jews who act out a scenario that includes enslavement, a bungled attempt by one brother to save the victim, a second brother afraid to stand up for what is right, and a cover-up to their father who, they know, will grieve to the day he dies. 

Apparently, Jews are not beyond such things. Judaism demands a higher standard than what we see in this week’s portion. It follows that we should exercise special vigilance to make sure we do not fall into the pattern of being just anyone, in our own day. God expects more of us, as we do of ourselves.

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