Boundless love

When relationships matter more than perceived fairness, love knows no bounds.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
A long time, our 13-yearold son, Zamir, was very conscious of what was fair and what wasn’t.
For example, he needed to feel that he was not walking the dog more than his brother was; that his portion of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream was equal to his siblings’; that I read a book and sang the “Shema” for as long as I did with his siblings, etc.
To his credit, though, Zamir also looked out for the rest of us.
“Abba hasn’t had any pizza yet! Save the rest for him.” Or, “Let’s wait for Ashira to come home before we start the movie.”
As a son of Israel – I mean an original son of Israel, one of Jacob’s kids ‒ Zamir certainly would not have abided the preferential treatment Jacob gave Joseph. And the problem would not have escalated all the way to sibling selling sibling into slavery. Zamir would have put a stop to Jacob’s seemingly blind preference for Joseph well before it got to that level ‒ if only by nagging.
To Joseph’s brothers, Jacob’s love was a commodity to be dispensed.
Love cannot evolve when it’s administered. Love has to grow and develop in the rich, complex messiness of relationship. Another strike against Jacob is that he did not have a parents’ counselor like Esther.
My husband, Yosef, and I see her regularly, and that therapy, her wisdom, is a gift of our time and place.
At one of our sessions, I was at the end of my rope with Zamir’s ongoing, utterly meticulous attention to justice. “He’s driving the other kids ‒ and us – crazy,” I told her. “His concern with fairness helped him survive,” Esther said. “I think it’s important to see how, at one time in his life, it kept him safe and healthy.”
Zamir was four and a half years old when we adopted him from an orphanage in Ethiopia. He had, like Joseph and his brothers, internalized a system in which adults administered life’s necessities to children. I knew, in general, about his early childhood, but Esther’s insight was a revelation.
In Miketz, Joseph, who had grown up in a zero-sum context – more love for him meant less for his brothers ‒ accurately interprets Pharaoh’s two dreams in terms of radical portions ‒ abundance and scarcity. Seven full, fat healthy cows are eaten by seven emaciated cows; seven robust ears of grain consumed by seven shriveled ears of grain.
“Immediately ahead,” said Joseph, “are seven years of plenty in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine.” Joseph recommended a plan to store grain over the first seven years to be apportioned in the time of famine. Thus, Joseph saved Egypt and was rewarded with status equal to pharaoh.
Like Zamir, thinking about survival through scrupulous attention to the fair and practical served Joseph in Egypt. But now, when his brothers leave the famine of Canaan to seek a portion of Egypt’s plenty, Joseph’s instincts are challenged. He is not served by the objective problem-solving of his life in Egypt, nor is he called to the old ways of his family. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him.
Therefore, he can freely listen to their conversation.
“Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” At that point, “[Joseph] turned away from them and wept.”
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her book “The Beginnings of Desire,” writes that this is the first of three times that Joseph weeps and each time, “something opens up in him, an unplanned response, which is at first a mere parenthesis, as he turns away and then turns back to his tyrannical role. In the course of that ‘parenthesis’… a new relationship is suggested, woven of regret, empathy, loss…” We tell Zamir not to worry so much about who gets what. “There is more than enough everything for everybody – especially love,” Yosef and I tell Esther. Maybe, Esther tells us, “there is another way to conceptualize this for him. You could explain that sometimes the relationship with your brother and sisters is more important than what’s ‘fair.’” As we conclude Miketz, Joseph, still unrevealed, has threatened to enslave the youngest brother, Benjamin. The brothers are still sensing that they are suffering divine retributive justice.
And they may all be on the precipice of learning what Zamir is slowly internalizing: in families, when relationships matter more than perceived fairness, love knows no bounds. 
Rabbi Susan Silverman is a speaker, activist, educator and author. Her latest book ‘Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World’ launches in April 2016. She and her spouse, Yosef Abramowitz, have five children and live in Jerusalem