On a weekly basis, and sometimes every day, we hear of horrid incidents when a person’s internal state of jealousy, anger or hatred is expressed in violence. Until that moment there is the possibility that their rage may subside or be sublimated in a non-destructive fashion. That decision point, when a person either pushes back at the darkness, or plunges fully into it, is a fateful moment which can lead to life or death for them and their neighbors. Dark thoughts may lead to dark deeds, but until they do, there remains the chance that light can banish darkness, and calamity can be averted.
One of the most poetic and profound examples of the link between jealousy and violence is the speech made by God to Cain prior to his murder of Abel. Cain is jealous that his brother’s sacrifice has been preferred to his own, and his “face falls.” Robert Alter translates the divine poem thus: Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches, and for you is its longing but you will rule over it. Of course, Cain does not rule over his sin—his jealous rage—but allows it to rule over him. Sin longs for Cain, and Cain longs for sin, so it wins and the earth absorbs Abel’s blood. The rest of Genesis builds upon this theme of jealousy and violence between brothers, offering only tentative steps towards reconciliation. The culmination of this theme is the saga of Jacob’s twelve sons.
From the outset of Parashat VaYeshev, Joseph inspires jealousy and hatred in his older brothers. The striped tunic given him by Jacob becomes a symbol of his beloved status and of their rage. It is no accident then that the moment when rage turns to violence involves the tunic. When Joseph arrives in Dothan, seeking “the peace of his brothers,” they instead “strip Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he had on him.” This attack is not the beginning of their hatred, nor is it the first clue to the inner state of the brothers. They had earlier challenged Joseph on his dreams of domination. But this moment is the point of no return, when they grab their brother, rip off his despised tunic and throw him into a pit. Continue reading