a painting of two men seated speaking to each other
"Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

How Joseph’s brothers moved past groupthink to see the suffering of the other

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

In the throes of famine in Canaan, 10 of Jacob’s sons travel to Egypt to beg the Great Vizier Zaphenat Paneach for food. This grand master of rationing is none other than Joseph, who recognizes them, but they of course do not know the identity of this powerful man, whose name in Egyptian means “creator of life.”

At that critical moment, Joseph holds their fate in the palm of his hand. He has attained the level of an almost-god. To test his kinsmen, who plotted to kill him and decided only at the last moment to sell him into slavery and fake his death, Joseph calls them spies and throws them in the guardhouse for three days.

Upon their conditional release, Joseph commands his brothers to leave behind one of their own as collateral and return again with their youngest brother — Joseph’s full sibling, Benjamin — to prove their innocence. At that moment, they do something extraordinary.

“They said to one another, ‘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.’” (Genesis 42:21)

What a reversal! Earlier, the brothers sat down to a feast while Joseph languished in the pit (Genesis 37:24-25) and later landed in prison. Now, it is they who have been “in a pit” of hunger and then imprisoned, while Joseph holds the keys to the food and to their survival.

The turnabout was certainly forecast in Joseph’s adolescent dreams of heavenly bodies and wheat sheaves bowing to him. Upon closer look, the mirror images are remarkable. As the brothers now plead for their lives, once upon a time Joseph had done the same.

Except that he hadn’t.

According to the Torah, when Joseph was tossed callously into the pit and then raised up from it to be handed to the Ishmaelites, or to the Midianites — the text, for all its infamy, is rather garbled — we don’t hear one word from him. Not one. But years later, under terrible duress, the brothers recall Joseph crying in anguish, pleading for his life. No wonder Joseph weeps.

What happened at the pit? What has happened to the brothers since?

If the Torah was only a collection of rules and laws, it would never have had the staying power of thousands of years. The narratives are what keep most of us coming back, and this one is a classic. When we hear later in Exodus, “You should not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2), the story of Joseph and his brothers is a near-perfect example.

In the late 20th century, Dr. Irving Janis named the phenomenon of the brothers’ behavior “groupthink.” Akin to mob mentality, groupthink occurs when like-minded people gather to make a decision and, due to social conformity, gravitate toward the same conclusion without fully analyzing all sides of the issue.

Groupthink generally occurs in situations of high stress, by members of a tightly knit group where dissent is stymied, and when the actors discard ethical or moral consequences. Reuben’s objections and Judah’s idea to sell rather than kill Joseph “for he is after all, our kin” (Genesis 37:27), with which they all agree, are notable to a degree. But in the end, Joseph has to go, and that’s that. What their father will suffer as a result of their subterfuge is, at that point, of no concern.

Young Joseph likely begged his brothers for mercy. But even if he didn’t — maybe he was in shock or even briefly thought they were just horsing around — they wouldn’t have been able to hear him. The “us versus them” mindset can be so strong in situations of groupthink, and the coldness toward the outsider so intense — “Here comes that dreamer!” they said — that the cohort is simply deaf to the suffering of the “other.”

It’s a scenario we may have likely found ourselves in, at one or many times, and on one side or the other.

Fortunately, the Jewish Founding Fathers were given the blessed opportunity of reconciliation and redemption. They lived in silence (and we imagine, in remorse) for years with their father’s pain and inconsolable loss. They have come to know the gnawing ache of hunger and uncertainty. And now they know the horror of being falsely accused and the terror of the prison cell.

When the brothers confess “we did not listen” to Joseph’s agony, they reveal finally their capacity to feel empathy, described as “valuing another person enough to listen and hear her voice. It is a halting that then allows us to take action … that brings us closer to becoming the best we can be.” (“Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates)

Empathy is considered by many to be the gateway to teshuvah, the return to goodness and repentance for past misdeeds. It is the antidote to groupthink and “othering,” and it can take years and many personal trials to emerge and bear fruit. But as the long, winding tale of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers continues to unfold, this poignant moment reminds us that empathy may very well be the key to healing our broken, beautiful world.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].