Talking peacefully? (Parashat Vayeshev 5784 / 2023)

 Talking peacefully?

Parashat Vayeshev 5784 / 2023

This week I saw a very chilling video and a very inspiring video, both of which were both recorded on the same day in the same location.  Both videos were recorded at a place very dear to me, the campus of Columbia University in New York City, this past Wednesday December 6.  Both were recorded in the lobby of the Columbia School of Social Work.

A student group in the Columbia Social Work school had announced a ‘teach-in’ in support of Gaza to take place this past Wednesday December 6. If the topic of  this event had been the plight of people in Gaza currently, the difficulties and horrifying loss of life faced by civilians in Gaza in the face of Israel’s bombardments, that’s something I would have expected. But that’s not what this event was. This event planned by Columbia Social Work students was an event specifically to applaud the violent events of October 7.  In fact, the title that the students gave to this “teach-in and discussion” was “Significance of the October 7th Palestinian Counteroffensive.” 

After that got some press coverage, the Columbia Social Work administration withdrew approval for the event.  A statement from the Dean said, “This is not a CSSW-sponsored event. The students who organized the event did not seek approval for the fliers and text as required by CSSW processes.  CSSW supports free speech but does not condone language that promotes violence in any manner, which is antithetical to our values. This event will not go forward at CSSW.” 

However, the dean’s statement notwithstanding, the event did take place.  The students ran the event anyway.  They just did it in a hallway in the school of social work rather than in an actual classroom. And that’s the chilling video that I saw.  Student speakers covered their faces with kefiyyas or umbrellas so that they wouldn’t be identified, and yes, they unambiguously spoke in favor of the events of October 7, with no nuance whatsoever. One speaker said, for example:  “On October 7, the Palestinian Liberation fighters demonstrated their refusal to be dominated.  They showed the world that the Palestinian people will fight for freedom instead of quietly adapting to subjugation. They showed us that through creativity, determination, and combined strength, the masses can accomplish great feats.”  

(I admit that these words contradict my stereotypes of how I would have imagined social workers would discuss mass murderers, kidnappers and rapists.) 

But then there’s the more inspiring video I saw this week, from later on in the same event (and I encourage you to watch it). A woman received permission to speak, and people held up umbrellas to block her face from everyone’s phone cameras, just as they had done for all the other speakers. But this speaker said:  I don’t need your umbrellas.  I am comfortable speaking publicly.  and if you’re not comfortable speaking publicly, I don’t know why you’re having a public event.

And this student  started out by noting that one of the student organizers had made reference to relatives of hers who had been killed in Gaza.  And this student speaker said: I am so sorry to hear about your relatives. I would love to meet privately and learn more about them. I am so sorry for your loss.

And then the student then went on to identify herself as an Israeli social work student.  She expressed to the student organizers how very disturbed she was by the things they had been saying, by their use of dehumanizing language, referring to Israelis as “Zionist dogs” despite their also accusing Israel of using dehumanizing language about Palestinians.   And she said: “To characterize the events of October 7 as a counteroffensive where my people were killed and maimed, and yes, raped whether you like it or not, whether it fits your narrative, to characterize that as anything else but terrorism and a massacre, is unacceptable from people who are studying to be social workers…. When you say ‘by any means necessary,’  is my life a ‘means necessary’?"  And she continued:   "If you want to talk about the military operation in Gaza, we can do that, I would love to have a genuine and real conversation with any of you, but I cannot do that when in these hallways you call for violence against me, against my children."  She concluded by again expressing condolences to the student organizer who had lost family members.

The video inspired me in part because of the courage of this Israeli student to be publicly identified and to have her words circulated on social media, knowing that some would likely see the video and disapprove of her message. And also that while she was clearly angry and impassioned, she also went out of her way to express empathy about the losses of one of the Palestinian students -- an empathy which she presumably knew would not be reciprocated.  She affirmed the essential humanity of the people with whom she was speaking even though they did not appear eager to affirm hers.  

Many of us may have watched videos of the Congressional hearing where presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT frankly blundered when asked questions about whether calls for genocide against Jews would be tolerated on their campuses - their answer was that it depends on the context.  (Thankfully they then each clarified that there is no context in which a call for genocide against Jews should be tolerated on campus, but the damage was done.)  The question was asked as a theoretical, but it was abundantly clear that it’s not so theoretical -- this week at the Columbia School of Social Work, students spoke approvingly of the massacres of October 7 and lauded it as an example of “creativity” and “determination.” 

Admittedly it is challenging for me to find inspiring material from our Torah portion to address the challenges of this moment.  But there is a detail in the beginning of our torah portion which at least reminds us of our ideals when we approach the most challenging conversations. 

At the beginning of the Torah portion of Vayeshev, Joseph has a conflict with his brothers.  They see that Joseph is their father’s favorite, and their father Jacob has given Joseph a “coat of many colors.”  Then we read the verse:   

 וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכָּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם   

 4 And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and they could not say a word to him in peace.”

Our tradition includes 2 opposite ways of understanding the end of this verse. What does it mean that the brothers “could not say a word to him in peace”? 

Rashi’s commentary from the 11th century in France suggests that this verse actually gives the brothers a back-handed compliment:   ולא יכלו דברו לשלום" - מתוך גנותם למדנו שבחם שלא דברו אחת בפה ואחת בלב  From these words of criticism [of the brothers], we also learn something positive about them, that they did not speak one way with their mouths and another way in their hearts.”  In other words, considering their extreme anger at their brother, it’s a good thing that they didn’t speak to him peacefully, because had they done so, they would have been hypocritical and duplicitous.  

I can relate to this interpretation today.  It would be hard for me to pretend to be able to speak civilly with those who have applauded acts of murder and kidnapping and rape. 

And yet there’s another interpretation of these words from the Torah, from a later scholar, the 18th century Rabbi Jonathan Eybschutz of Prague.  In his commentary to the Torah, Tiferet Yehonatan, he says: the lesson of this passage is the opposite of what Rashi says.  When you have a complaint against someone, the most important thing to do is to express it in words, as civilly as you are able.  If you don’t do this, the hatred grows and festers.  Joseph’s brothers were unable to speak with him peacefully, and that's the reason why their hatred for him grew to the point that they threw him in the pit and sold him into slavery.

This interpretation urges us to do what we can to have communication even with those who frankly don’t deserve our communication.  Through dialogue, adversaries can sometimes come to understand that they are closer together than they might have thought.  And sometimes they even reevaluate their positions.

I am also thinking of a study I read this week by a professor at Berkeley, who interviewed hundreds of students who had participated in pro-Palestinian protests in the last several weeks in which they chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”  He asked them:  in that chant, which river, and which sea, are you talking about?

And the answers were all across the map, literally -- the Nile, the Euphrates, the Dead Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean.  Fewer  than half of the students in this study were able to correctly identify that it’s about the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  Some students indicated that they participated in the chant because of their  belief that a state of Israel and a state of Palestine should coexist side by side, and when they were guided to look at the map and to see where the river and the sea are (and that this chant precludes an Israeli and Palestinian state coexisting), they indicated that maybe they didn’t agree with the chant as much as they had previously  thought they did. 

This Berkeley professor, Ron Hassner, suggests that his study suggests that not everyone who is using incendiary language on campus has an idea of what they’re actually talking about, and that face to face contact often helps people to be more moderate in their speech and in their views.  There are things that people chant that they would never dream of saying to someone else’s face. And the experience of being face to face with someone with contrary views sometimes leads people to be more thoughtful about their own views.  Not always - I don’t think that this face to face contact with the social work students pushed them towards a more moderate direction -- but sometimes it does. 

Last month we hosted our Concert for Israel benefiting various charities in Israel - one of which is an organization called Hand in Hand.  The CEO of Hand in Hand, Lee Gordon, will be our guest for Shabbat in March so that we can hear from him directly.  This organization supports a network of schools in Israel  that educate Israeli Jewish and Arab kids together, in Hebrew and Arabic, with the goal of promoting a shared society and mutual respect.  Wherever one stands on any Israeli political issue, there is agreement that the cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel is one of the necessary ingredients of a strong future for the region and its inhabitants, and Hand in Hand has this as its primary goal.

Rabbi Jonathan Eybschutz’s lesson from the beginning of our torah portion is applicable not only to disastrous breakdowns in communication like we are seeing now.  It is also applicable on a smaller scale to every one of our relationships. Tensions fester when we don’t talk about them, and talking about them is (not always, but sometimes) a first step to getting these tensions under control.

And we can take a lesson from a heroic Israeli social work student, who -- despite everything -- insisted on speaking to fellow human beings like a fellow human being. 

With best wishes for a happy Hanukkah -- like our Hanukkah candles, may we help the light in the world to increase day by day. 

Rabbi Rob Scheinberg


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