Lessons from a Tragic Miscommunication by Rabbi Beni Krohn


Dr. John M. Gottman is a professor emeritus at Washington University and the Director of the Relationship Institute. Through his research, Dr. Gottman found that, more than any other factor, the key to a successful relationship between husband and wife is effective communication. Dr. Gottman's research methods have been so successful that he has been able to predict the outcomes of relationships 94% of the time. Clearly, when it comes to successful relationships, communication is crucial.

As one reads about the emotional reunion between Ya'akov and Yosef one might feel mixed emotions. On the one hand, the encounter is extremely moving. Father and son, separated for so long, are finally reunited. However, this reunion also brings to light a question asked by many of the Parshanim, both medieval and contemporary: Why doesn’t Yosef contact Ya'akov for all of this time? True, for many of the years that Yosef is away he is enslaved or imprisoned; however, for nine years, Yosef is second to only Par'oh and doesn’t contact his family.

Yosef clearly had a close relationship with his father. It was this relationship which spawned his brothers' jealousy in the first place and eventually led to his being sold as a slave to Egypt. Yosef must know that his father is mourning his lost son. How can Yosef not have the compassion to let Ya’akov know he is alive and well?

Many Mefareshim provide answers to this question, but their answers often fail to answer the question regarding Yosef's humane relationship with Ya'akov, or lack thereof. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks provides an insightful explanation, which not only answers our question but also has remarkable relevance to challenges we face every day in our own families.

A closer look at the last interactions Yosef has with his father may give us some insight into our conundrum. After telling his first dream to only his brothers Yosef recounts the events of his second dream with Ya'akov present. Ya'akov not only responds to Yosef, but he responds with a rebuke. “Do you really think that I, your mother, and your brothers will bow down to you on the ground?” (BeReishit 37:10). Simply put, “Yosef, how can you show such Chutzpah to tell your own father he will subjugate himself to you!?”

In the very next scene, Ya'akov sends Yosef to check on his brothers in Shechem. Surely Ya'akov has experience with sibling rivalry. He has experience even with brothers who want to kill each other, for his own brother tried to kill him. Does he not know how the brothers feel about Yosef? Nevertheless, he sends Yosef all alone to go find them. When Yosef arrives to fulfill his father’s command the brothers immediately grab him, throw him in a pit, and sell him as a slave to Egypt.

Yosef has a long time to review this scene in his mind for years and he asks himself, “What was my father thinking? Didn’t he know he was putting me in harm’s way?” And what is Yosef’s conclusion? “It was a set-up and my father was in on it. He wanted me sold.” Why does Yosef arrive at this conclusion? Because Yosef just told his father he would bow down to his own son. An act of rebellion by Yosef! And although this response might seem to be an overreaction on Yosef’s part, one must remember that Yosef heard of this happening in his family before. Eisav was rejected by his parents, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and Yishma’eil was sent away by Avraham and Sarah. Therefore, thinks Yosef, “I, too, have been rejected by my own father.”

If this theory is correct, it now makes perfect sense why Yosef never sends word to Ya'akov. He thinks his father wants nothing to do with him; in turn, Yosef never even considers reconciliation.

All of this certainly explains why Yosef does not contact his father all these years. He thinks he is the one who has been rejected. However, this explanation also makes the story even more tragic than we ever thought. If only Yosef would have known his father was crying for him every day he would have reached out. He would have sent word and years of pain could have been avoided. And the truth is that this is the true tragedy that is the entire story of Ya'akov and his children: A refusal to communicate and find out the facts before jumping to conclusions.

We find this breakdown in communication from the beginning of the story. Throughout the story of Ya'akov’s children, we find the brothers speak only one sentence to Yosef while they are living in the same home; after his first dream. After that we find no more conversation – not after the second dream, and certainly not when they sell him into slavery. Their next conversation with Yosef takes place as he stands before them as the viceroy of Egypt. They had made up their minds about their brother and would not be convinced otherwise, just as Yosef later makes up his mind about his father’s intentions.

Ya'akov and his children didn’t have the opportunity to read about their lives. They had to live through their mistakes. But we do have that chance. We have the opportunity to reflect on what can happen when family members refuse to communicate and to make sure we don’t repeat their failures. If we can learn these lessons and become more effective communicators, we can say honestly that we have taken a significant step toward improving our relationships with our spouses, our children, our extended family, and our entire community.

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