Who Dunnit: Jacob Getting out of the Pit

Yesterday evening I saw My Hero Brother, Yonatan Nir’s moving documentary film about a group of Israelis who take their siblings, who have grown up with Down syndrome, to India for an arduous trek up the Himalayas. When you consider the shorter legs of children with Down syndrome and the difficulty they have walking long distances, their respiratory problems and their sensitivity to differential air pressures – they develop headaches – such an excursion might be considered an exercise in revenge by a sibling charged his or her whole life with responsibility for a brother or a sister with the condition.

Freud would be wrong if he ever made such a suggestion. That the trek is punishing is no question. But what you see and listen to is a range of sibling love and dedication, a determination of young Israelis to give their brothers and sisters an experience of their lives. It is Israeli tough love in practice. It is an exemplification that the IDF instills in its soldiers that arduous tasks undertaken successfully bring enormous rewards and unbeatable pleasure and satisfaction.

The physical challenges do not entail rock climbing up a sheer cliff as I initially feared. But the troupe initially travels by train and then bus and finally by 4-wheel drive vehicles to their starting point. They rest after several days of this type of travel, swim in a motel pool and then begin packing up their tents and gear for the strenuous challenge they will face. They do have mules to carry supplies, but each one carries his or her own huge hiking backpack that has to weigh at least 30 pounds. They do have Indian guides, but other than signs that the guides gradually fall in love with their very challenged charges, they are not asked or expected to help them. When they need help, it is their brothers or sisters who hold their hands or their elbows to give them heft over a tough spot or, once in a while, carry them over s crossing stream or a particularly onerous section of the path.

The film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival on 7 February 2017. It won the Best Documentary Film Award and the Audience Choice Award. For as hard and difficult the physical challenge was for these young people with Down Syndrome, the emotional challenges between the siblings is over the top. When one suffers from altitude sickness, the sibling gets in a paroxysm of remorse for what she did to her brother. When one young girl with particularly short legs complains of the pain and that she cannot go any further, the group concede and put her on a mule for a while. In every case, they bounce back. In every case, they resume the challenging trek. And all the while the scenery gets more spectacular and more beautiful.

As is well known, after their army service many Israelis travel the world from Argentina to India to seek out an adventure and an escape from army life. Sometimes that escape involves hedonistic indulgence in Bali. At other times it involves even greater physical challenges than the ones they faced in the army. Enosh Cassel decided to take his brother Hanan who had not and would never serve in the army to a place he would never otherwise go.  “We needed to go through something intensive and then I could understand what life is like for him right now.” 

Their initial much more modest but very successful effort earned them reams of publicity and a pack of inquiries from others who also had Down Syndrome siblings. Itamar Peleg, owner of a travel service, Travelog, contacted him and together they planned the trek for eleven pairs of siblings, for 22 Israelis in total. They crowdfunded. They planned. They had get-togethers to become acquainted. It took them two years of preparation. A three-person film crew and a Tel Aviv physician traveled with the troupe.

When they all get to the top at almost 12,000 feet, when they look out across the gorge at snow-capped mountains that soar to 25,000 feet, when they stand on that relatively flat meadow at the top and hug one another, pose for group photographs and plant an Israeli flag, you do not have to be Jewish or Israeli for your heart to sing and clap along with them.

Who was the hero brother – the one who was dedicated and loved his challenged brother to take him on the trek, or the one who grew up with Down syndrome to face all the special challenges he had to face and emerge as a very loving, very loyal human being with more capabilities than I have and more guts as well than I ever had to trek up a mountain.

This week’s parashat in the Torah is also about brothers, but not brothers who take their challenged siblings to climb mountain heights, but ones who throw their arrogant smart-assed brother with all his personal beauty and aesthetic sensibilities, who is the favourite of their father, into a pit where they either intended to kill him or to leave him there for wild animals and lions to devour him. Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin, a colleague from York University who now lives in Jerusalem, wrote a commentary on this week’s Parashat Vayeshev called, “Joseph Accuses His Brothers of Selling Him – but Did They?” (https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?hl=en_GB#label/Areas.Israel%2FJudaism/FMfcgxwKjnbqmntQTlcjMzWrpmftFfsv)

Marty sets out the possibilities:

  1. The brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites who resold him to the Ishmaelites.
  2. The Midianites found him in the pit, dragged him up and sold him to the Ishmaelites.

The first option appears to be the most obvious since Joseph, when he reveals to his brother who he is, says, “I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen 45:4). Who would know better than Joseph who did the sale? It is important to note that the original plan was to kill him, but the eldest brother, Reuben, convinced his other brothers to leave him in a pit for the animals to get him so they would not have blood on their hands. His intention was to secretly return, get him out of the pit and take Joseph back to his father.

But when he and his other brothers, excluding Reuben, were eating, Judah came up with another plan. Do not kill him. Do not let him be killed by wild animals. Sell him to the Ishmaelites whose caravan they could see in the distance. In the interim, the Midianite traders passed by, got him out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

Does that mean that Joseph’s brothers neither killed him, neither left him for dead nor even sold him into slavery? What Joseph said could not be true except in two senses:

  1. Joseph believed they had sold him first to the Midianites who dragged him out of the pit.
  2. Joseph believed that the brothers were directly responsible for the Midianites capturing and selling him to the Ishmaelites so, in tort law, they were guilty.  

But Rashi said that the brothers did it. After all, didn’t Judah suggest the idea of the sale. The Midianites were traders, were middlemen, who first bought Joseph from the brothers for perhaps ten pieces of silver, one for each brother, and then resold him at a profit. But the commentator, R. Menachem ben Shlomo, suggested that the Midianites regretted the purchase and sold him at cost to get rid of him. But it does not matter why the Midianites did it, only that they did. But did they come upon him or did they first buy Joseph from the brothers? The narrative does not tell us. The narrative does not even say that the brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites.

Thus, there is the third alternative. The brothers never sold Joseph at all, even if that was what Joseph believed. The Midianites found him in the pit, pulled him out and sold him to the Ishmaelites even before the brothers could. Does it matter whether the brothers first sold him to the Midianites or, alternatively, they did not, but Joseph thought they had? And the fact that he thought that points to the significance of the story.

The brothers hated Joseph, and for good reason. They were given an opportunity for revenge and they had the following alternatives:

  1. They could have thrown him into the pit, left him there in fear and trembling as he feared wild animals would attack him, or, even worse, he would be left there to die. But after scaring him literally to death, they could have retrieved him as Reuben planned and return him to their father.
  2. They could have thrown him into the pit and let him to be devoured by wild animals or to be trapped there and die of thirst and hunger.
  3. They could have decided to lift him out and sell him to the Ishmaelites in line with Judah’s plan.
  4. They could have come across the path of the Midianites, sold Joseph to them and they resold him either in Egypt or to the Ishmaelites traveling to Egypt.

The first two alternatives would have been far worse than the last two because Joseph would end up not only dead, but dying in a horrific manner, almost equivalent to being buried alive. Let me elaborate on the two sets of alternatives by referring to another reference made on Yom Kippur in addition to the Joseph story. It is the tale of the scapegoat, the goat upon whose head was placed the sins of the Hebrews and then fled in freedom into the wilderness.

In that tale, there are two goats. One is sacrificed to God just as the goat that substituted for Isaac on the altar. The other carries off the sins of the people into the wilderness. Of these two choices, Joseph is the scapegoat who carries off with him the sins of the brothers, a sin which was unpardonable, and went off to the wilderness of Egypt where Joseph found not only freedom but riches and power and all that he ever dreamed of having. Joseph was not castigating his brothers when he reminded them that they had sold him off, but telling them that had unintentionally carried out a mitzvah. The statement that they had sold him was not so much a reminder and a remonstration as a wink and a nod – you treated me terribly but here I am, the very opposite of what you planned for me

In one variation of the scapegoat tale, the goat is taken to the edge of a cliff in the wilderness and pushed over. I believe it is a silly version for the point, I believe, is to say how unintentionally sins can be turned into good fortune, into a life of freedom partly through serendipity. However, it is an instructive version, for the man tending the goat and leading it into the wilderness was instructed to push the goat down the slope of a mountainside so steep that the death of the goat was guaranteed.

The trip down is more challenging than even the trip up. We have before us four geographical tropes, down into a pit and pulled up out of pit, travelling up a mountain as Abraham did with Isaac and the siblings did with their brothers and sisters with Down syndrome, or going over a cliff and dying in trying to traverse downwards a very steep incline. In that sense, the trip down the mountain was even riskier than the trip up for it is about whether the reconciliation achieved in going up is absorbed and incorporated into one’s being.

Joseph is not only pulled out of the pit, but travels upwards in power and riches. The alternative, the worst dying in the pit unattended or being abused and attacked by wild animals, was avoided. And that is what the siblings did with their challenged brothers and sisters. They refused to leave their siblings in a pit from which they had nowhere to go. Instead, they went on an aliyah, adapted in 1896 from the Arabic verb hajjara, meaning “to forsake.”

This is a very different view of the radical dichotomy between good and evil so deeply planted in Christianity and the contrast between Satan and God, of Jesus who suffers for our sins as the way forward to forgiveness and salvation. It is not the virtuous who are needed to carry the sins. Anyone can be cast in this role at anytime by a failure or by serendipity. But whatever the problem, even a physical one like Down syndrome, it can be turned into a source of forgiveness for years of loving resentment and turned into a much higher plane of deep love.

It is a tale about making lemonade out of lemons, of turning a bad situation into a beneficial one. That is what happened inadvertently in the tale of Joseph and his brothers who threw him into a pit. That is what happened when those Israeli heroes took their siblings with Down syndrome on a trek up the Himalayas. They forsook their past, but preserved it and raised it to a much higher level by traveling up the mountain. Hegel used the verb aufheben to convey all three movements at once, forsaking, preserving and raising up.

That in the end is the real challenge when dealt a bad hand, intentionally or unintentionally and inadvertently. This is how atonement takes place for sins we may not even know we committed. Whatever the bad cards dealt, they can always be turned into a source of redemption.

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