Miketz – Who Do We Mean When We Say ‘We’?
The viceroy of Egypt clearly shocked the ten sons of Jacob brought before him when he suddenly accused them of espionage. A hint at the terror they felt is the choppy syntax of their response, whose formulation they had no time to prepare. They reply first with a simple denial and then reiterate their stated purpose: ‘No, my lord. Rather, your servants have come to buy food.’ Next, they explain the relationship they share: ‘We are all the sons of one man.’ At that point, perhaps perceiving angry incredulity in the face of their inquisitor, they twice insist on the truth of their claim: ‘We are honest. Your servants would never be spies.’(Gen. 42:11)
A midrash, retold byRashi, notes the unwitting truth of their statement that ‘we are all the sons of one man’. It is not only the ten brothers standing before the viceroy, but the viceroy himself as well – their brother Joseph – who can be included in the ‘we’ who are ‘the sons of one man’. They have uttered a greater truth than they could know, which the midrash ascribes to a flash of divine inspiration.
We Jews are ‘the children of Israel’ because of our claim to be the descendants of the biblical Jacob. (We mean this in a mythic sense, of course. Jews by choice but not birth also refer to the patriarchs as ‘our fathers’.) We present ourselves to the world, then, much as did Joseph’s brothers: ‘We are all the sons of one man.’ And just as with Joseph, our claim can be heard as being more widely true than we intend, because the larger ‘we’, both the Jews and those whom we address, are ‘the sons [and daughters] of one man’ – the original human being, Adam.
We too often lose sight of that larger truth, preferring to huddle together rather than embrace humanity. When the government of Israel last month placed mourning notices in local newspapers decrying the murder of a 49-year-old Israeli educator and an 18-year-old American yeshiva student by a Palestinian terrorist, it chose to focus only on the restricted sense of who ‘we’ are. A third victim went unremarked andunmournedin that advertisement. A Palestinian in his mid-20s, too, was killed in the same spray of bullets as the other two.
Naturally – you might say – a government mourns its own citizens. But Ezra Schwartz, the young yeshiva student, was in Israel on a U.S. passport. All three men were victims of the same terrorist.One was an Israeli citizen; two were not. All three were killed in a place (GushEtzion, an ‘Area C’ zone) under complete Israeli control. But Ezra Schwartz was mentioned because he was a Jew, whileShadiArafawas not mentioned because he was not a Jew but a Palestinian.
Like Joseph’s brothers, the public relations person in the Prime Minister’s Office who wrote that notice lives in fear. For him or her, Palestinians are, it would seem, all ‘the enemy’. But we areallthe children of one father and one mother. In times of tragedy and sorrow, at least, are we unable to regard all victims’ families as deserving of our consolation?
Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, and writer. He has taught Hebrew and Jewish studies at universities, seminaries, and other post-secondary institutions, and his rabbinic work has taken him to Jewish communities in North America, Europe, East Asia, and East Africa.