Jacob’s death unleashed fear and terror among the brothers. Free of the restraining influence of his father, Joseph would certainly avenge his sale as a slave, they thought.
The brothers were so petrified, that they could not directly face Joseph directly. Instead, they dispatched their pleas for his mercy through third-party intermediaries. Desperate to avoid Joseph’s wrath, they concocted a white lie about Jacob’s deathbed instructions for their pardon.
It is hard to imagine Joseph actually falling for this transparent lie. Dishonesty, deception, and indirect communication are telltale signs of a toxic relationship, lacking any semblance of trust.
Sadly, there were two trigger events that stoked their worst fears. Twice, Joseph’s innocent behavior was grossly misinterpreted by his suspicious brothers.
The first crisis, as reported in the midrash, developed when Joseph began to dine alone instead of sharing his meals with his brothers.
While Jacob was alive, Joseph had dined alongside his brothers, sitting at the head of the table beside his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over 20 years. At this stage, however, Joseph felt uncomfortable positioning himself at the table “ahead” of his older brothers, especially ahead of Reuven, the firstborn, and Judah, the newly minted leader. Unwilling to disgrace his brothers, Joseph made the selfless decision to dine privately.
Sadly but not surprisingly, the brothers regarded this unselfish decision as a micro-aggression against them, and their fears got the better of their rational judgment. A noble and magnanimous decision, intended to protect the dignity of the brothers, was misconstrued as hostile behavior.
The second crisis, unfolded during their joint voyage to Israel to bury Jacob. At some point during the journey, Joseph made a personal detour to the pit into which he had been flung and from which he was sold into slavery. This is a touching scene of a wounded man seeking closure for the dreadful trauma that wrecked his youth. The image evokes pity and commiseration, but the wary brothers didn’t view it that way. In their distorted reasoning, they assumed that Joseph returned to the scene of the crime to plan his revenge. Suspicion muddled their judgment, leading to unsubstantiated panic.
Two ships passed in the night. Joseph was preserving their dignity, but the jaded brothers assumed he was antagonistic toward them. Joseph also visited a site of a past personal trauma, but the brothers assumed he was plotting his revenge. Why couldn’t they understand one another? Because all communication had collapsed.
The tragedy of miscommunication
Some of the greatest tragedies in life occur due to lack of communication.
The brothers had not lived together for over 20 years, and even after being reunited, they led very separate lives. The brothers lived in the family enclave of Goshen, while Joseph hobnobbed among the noblemen and magicians of Egyptian palaces. The lack of face-to-face communication led to suspicion and distrust, innocent actions were misconstrued, and sincere intentions caused irrational fear and panic.
Without communication, trust erodes. Without trust, relationships crash.
This broken relationship could be repaired only by healthy and honest communication. To his great credit, Joseph, at the tail end of the Book of Genesis, finally engaged in healthy communication. Instead of fleeing from the complicated situation, he embraced it and confronted the issue. His difficult conversation with his brothers led to reconciliation and stands out as the healthiest communication of the entire Book of Genesis.
Firstly, and most importantly, Joseph spoke directly with his brothers rather than forwarding frantic messages through friends and liaisons. Direct, face-to-face communication is always more effective and more authentic. It allows for body language, subtlety and interactive dialogue rather than volleying unilateral statements back and forth.
Secondly, for the first time in their relationship, Joseph actually listened to his brothers and responded to their worries.
Active listening sits at the heart of communication but, sadly, we are often preoccupied with formulating our brilliant responses rather than actively listening to others.
In the past, Joseph was far too busy setting a trap for his brothers to actually listen to them and hear their concerns. After Judah’s long soliloquy pleading for clemency, Joseph unilaterally announced his true identity, inquired about his father’s well-being, but completely ignored Judah’s grievances.
By contrast, during this repaired conversation, Joseph carefully listened to his brothers’ anxieties, empathized with their fear, and tried to comfort them. Twice he reassured them not to be afraid of him, and, as the Torah remarks, he finally spoke to their hearts rather than issuing authoritative one-sided announcements or revelations. It was soft conversation, not loud shouting.
Beware of those who have only one decibel level, and it is always loud. Beware the shouters, who are deaf to their hearts and to yours.
More important than anything else, Joseph cried with his brothers. Earlier, when he revealed his identity, he also cried, but it was a roar of personal anguish rather than a brokenhearted and tender crying. Tears come in many varieties, and this was the first time that he shed tender tears of sympathy and compassion. Only when their tears mixed and their eyes met could their hearts blend and begin to mend.
Finally, during his honest conversation with his brothers, Joseph didn’t sugarcoat the past.
It is easy to sweep thorny issues under the carpet, but they always come back to haunt a relationship. Left unattended, tensions fester and erupt with greater force and inflict greater damage than they would have caused had they been addressed earlier.
Joseph acknowledged his brothers’ malicious intent but conceded that divine intervention had converted their shameful crime into good fortune for Joseph and hunger relief for the family.
Honest confrontation of difficult issues lies at the heart of genuine communication, and Joseph’s honesty enabled the brothers to purge their unbearable guilt. Once trust had been restored between Joseph and his brothers, the relationship could move forward.
There are multiple reasons for the breakdown of trust in modern society, but chief among them is the deterioration of our interpersonal communication.
The Internet age and the emergence of social media have established alternate modes of communication, empowering us to more effortlessly share information and resources.
Every blessing, though, carries a curse, and the Internet is damaging our interpersonal communication skills. The Internet encourages quicker and more efficient communication but is wrecking face-to-face communication skills. Spending far too much time staring at screens, we are uncomfortable looking into people’s eyes.
Because the eyes are the gateways to the soul, direct eye contact yields connection and social bonding. I constantly urge students to maintain eye contact during conversations. It is always easier to look at a screen, but it doesn’t look back.
Preoccupied with long-distance, impersonal communication, we are losing the ability to appreciate nonverbal cues, body language or context. These do not come across in a WhatsApp.
Emojis are gutting our communication of deep emotions, substituting simplistic and plastic emotional responses for actual feelings. Overreliance on emojis is affecting our ability to discern our own deeper emotions and is crippling our ability to express them. We are becoming emotionally flat. Our emotional inner world is too complex to be simplified into a few dozen emoji faces. Emojis are diluting our emotions.
Healthy and trustful relationships are built on genuine and honest personal communication. We must protect human communication from the great age of communication. Life is ironic in that way.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.