coping with crisis
While Joseph is rising to great heights in Egypt, the family he left behind in Canaan is sinking into famine and despair. Joseph’s brothers, who were raised in comfort, have no idea how to cope in hard times. So it is Jacob, who spent much of his life as a poor and hungry shepherd, who is left to stir them into action. He does so with an unusual phrase, which occurs only once in the bible: “Lama titra-u”.
This phrase, which girds the sons into acting, is clearly crucial to the story. But what does it mean?
The question that Jacob directs at his sons is a mysterious one. The word “titra-u” seems to be the reflexive form of the verb to see, suggesting that it may mean to look at yourself, or to make yourself appear a certain way. The ambiguity in the phrase leaves the commentators wide room for interpretation as to Jacob’s message to his sons at this time of crisis. Here are the views of four classic commentators.
- Rashi, the great French commentator, writing in the th century, reads the word titra-u as “make yourself appear”, giving the sentence the sense of: ‘why are you pretending to others that you have plenty of food?’ In other words, he suggests, Jacob is telling his sons not to worry about keeping up appearances and to face up to the reality of the crisis that confronts them.
- Radak (R. David Kimche, France, th century) takes a similar line, but reads the word as “delude yourself” or “fantasize”. For the Radak, the problem Jacob is addressing is not that the sons are trying to fool others, but rather that they are fooling themselves.
- Ibn Ezra, writing in Spain in the th century, finds a similar phrase in the Book of Chronicles where it means “quarrel”, and so concludes that Jacob’s admonition is “Don’t argue with each other.”
- Ovadia Sforno, writing in 15th century Italy, gives the simplest and most poignant explanation. Taking the verb titra-u as the reflexive form of the verb “to see”, he translates the phrase “lama titra-u?”, quite literally, as ‘Why are you looking at each other?’ In other words, why is none of you taking the initiative, why are you all expecting someone else to solve the problem?
Four commentators, writing in different places and different ages, suggest very different explanations as to Jacob’s intention in chiding his sons. But each of the four reflects a common psychological reaction to times of crisis: denial, blame and abnegation of responsibility. For Rashi and Radak, the question relates to the tendency to deny the crisis – either to others or to ourselves: “Why are you not facing the reality of the situation?”; for Ibn Ezra, it relates to the tendency to place the blame on others: “Why are you quarreling?”; and for Sforno, it addresses the tendency to look outside of ourselves for the solutions to our problems: “Why are you looking at each other?”
Israel, in its short history as a modern state, has had to confront more than its fair share of emergency situations. And at these difficult times, the question that Jacob posed to his sons, later to become heads of the tribes of Israel, has served as a helpful guide for dealing with crisis. As interpreted by four classic commentators, the message from Jacob for dealing with such situations is clear: Face up to the reality of the situation; don’t destroy your unity by blaming and quarreling with each other; and take personal responsibility yourself for finding a solution to the problem.
In others’ words
“Zionism and pessimism are not compatible.”
Golda Meir, quoted in Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir
On a lighter note
A local yeshiva challenged Oxford University to a rowing contest but were beaten hands-down by the Oxford team. Before the return race, the head of the Yeshiva told his rowing captain to go
and spy on the Oxford team’s training session to try and find out why they were so much faster. The rowing captain came back to the Yeshiva head, beaming. “I think I’ve figured out their secret” he said, excitedly. “What is it?” asked the Yeshiva head. “Well,” said the captain, “they do everything the other way round to us.” “What do you mean?” “It’s simple,” says the captain, “they’ve got eight men rowing and only one man shouting!”