Readings: Genesis 44:1-17; Psalm 93; Romans 8:1-10; John 5:25-29.
Reading Joseph's story in Genesis this Lent has made me think a lot about sibling relationships. His actions seem so childish and dramatic (hiding his silver cup in Benjamin's sack to frame him). But then I have to remind myself that his brothers did plot to kill him before selling him into slavery, and he's had a lot of years to think about that. I'm surprised he didn't throw them all in jail, permanently. But, then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.
Sibling relationships are complicated. Each sibling, regardless of birth order, thinks that they are the victim. Siblings get into some pretty horrible fights--I've been in my fair share. But if you think about it, all relationships that are worthwhile come with some challenges. Your perspective changes when you grow up sharing your parents' attention, and I think that's a good thing.
The Shine siblings on top of the Empire State Building (2005)
Two particular sibling relationships I've been thinking about recently are the relationship between Moses and Aaron and the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh. One of the classes I'm taking this spring is a midrash class taught by a local Jewish rabbi. The best way I've heard midrash described is that it's "a true story that never happened" (click here for more information). Well, for one of my assignments, I wrote a midrash on two verses from Exodus (this is the assignment that kept me from posting on Wednesday night). It reads, “Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go’ ” (Exodus 5:1-2). Since we're on the topic of siblings, I thought I'd include the midrash in today's reflection:
Nothing ever changes. That’s what my life taught me to believe, anyway. Our people have been here for generations, slaves in a foreign land. But it’s the only home I’ve known.
After years of suffering and torture you have to put your feelings aside, submerge them, because if they resurface you will drown in all the pain. “Don’t let your hearts get hardened, now,” mother used to say. She stopped saying that when she made the choice to feed my little brother to the waters of the Nile rather than watch him be murdered.
Growing up I used to love listening to the old men tell stories of our people and their relationship with Adonai, blessed be His Name. They were exciting stories: evil snakes, murderous brothers, epic floods, towers reaching to the sky…I could sit at their feet listening for hours. Sometimes I made Miriam play ancestor with me. For example, I would be Abel and she would be Cain. I would be Noah and she would be the people left behind (since she was so good at wailing and complaining). If I was feeling particularly generous that day I’d let her be the animals on the ark. But of all the ancestors I played, the one that intrigued me the most was Enoch. What did it mean that he walked with the Lord? I wanted to walk with the Lord. I had about a bazillion questions for him. Like why he invented smells. Why all the Egyptian kids didn’t have to work. And why the heck he made belly buttons. On these imaginary walks with the Lord I let Miriam play God. Before you think I was being kind, let me assure you that I grilled her.
Once I got older, the situation didn’t change, and so the questions never went away. As I moved into my role as a religious leader of Israel, I thought that if I prayed hard enough or cared hard enough, the Lord would come and save us. After a while it felt like he was either refusing to listen or was deaf. I didn’t know which was worse.
And then one day I heard it: a voice, calling my name. “Aaron” the voice said in rich, rumbling tones that for some reason made me think of a fatherly lion. “Aaron, go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” After I picked myself up from the ground following the shock of hearing a voice without a body (which, come to think of it, God must either really get a kick out of or be completely fed up with watching people fall down every time he speaks)…but anyway, after I picked myself up, all of my questions moved to the background and I felt like it would probably be good if I listened to him. You don’t argue with the Big Guy, after all. Well, that’s not entirely true, but you know what I mean.
I found my brother at the mountain. So many emotions were going through my head; for the first time I understood what Esau must have felt when he saw Jacob in the wilderness. This person was a stranger, had been dead to me for most of my life, and yet here he was, my little brother, standing awkwardly before me. How could I not run and embrace him?
We talked all the way back from the wilderness; we had a lot to catch up on. He recounted his years growing up in Pharaoh’s palace with servants obeying his every whim, and I told him how much it sucked being a religious leader of oppressed people. Good times. Then he began explaining to me exactly what our task was. We were supposed to convince the Israelites that the Lord had finally listened to us. And then we were to go to Pharaoh—the king of Egypt—and ask to be given a short vacation so we could celebrate a festival in the wilderness. I started laughing when he told me that, but then stopped when I saw by his face that he was serious. “You know he’s not going to buy that excuse, right?” Moses looked nervous but said that the Lord had it under control. He even had a script ready for me.
We got back to the Israelites and my speech went really well; turns out the Lord knew exactly what to say and do to get them on board. I felt pretty good after that, even felt optimistic that our efforts with Pharaoh would go well.
I was wrong. We got to the palace and did our little spiel, “let my people go” and so forth. But he wasn’t buying our reason for leaving. “Holiday? You people haven’t had a holiday in…wait a minute, you’ve never had a holiday. Your entire existence is to serve me. Plus, who is this Lord you speak of? I’ve never heard of this Lord. I think you’re making it all up. I’m not giving up free labor. You may not go.”
I looked at Pharaoh, a man who for a time was brother to my brother. I felt no brotherly feelings toward him, except that I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. Of course he didn’t know the Lord. When you have been treated like a god your entire life, groomed for this purpose, why would you look anywhere else for authority? I was reminded of my mother saying, “Don’t let your hearts get hardened, now.” Pharaoh’s heart was definitely hardened. But with all that had gone on recently, I had the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this time everything would change.