Our Way of Thinking

Biblical place names often mean something, so when the unnamed stranger informs Joseph that his brothers have gone to Dotan (Dothan, in English), Rashi wonders about the place’s name. It might be just a name, of course, but he allows for the possibility that it refers to the Hebrew dat, from which we get the modern word for “religion.” In Rashi’s day, however, and in the classical rabbinic era before him, it didn’t mean “religion” per se, but, rather, “a way of thinking.”

We see it in the rabbinic marriage ceremony, where (traditionally) the groom says to his bride, “Be Thou consecrated to me … according to the dat of Moses and Israel [kdat moshe v’yisra’el].” Dat Moshe, say the Rabbis, represents the laws that are supposed to govern the relationship between husband and wife; dat yisrael (also called dat y’hudit, “the dat of Jews”) comprises the non-legal understandings that should constitute it.

Dat, then, is both legal and extra-legal. With marriage, for example, dat Moshe is law while dat yisra’el (or y’hudit) is custom – the understandings that have less force than law, but that, nonetheless, are the way married Jews are supposed to think and act toward one another.

Dotan is that word dat (“a way of thinking”) with a grammatical ending for “our.” The brothers, said the stranger, are in Dotan, “Our Way of Thinking.” Joseph duly finds them “in Dotan.” That is to say, he finds them “in our way of thinking.”

But whose way of thinking is that? Why didn’t the stranger say “Your way of thinking” or “Their way of thinking”? And who is this stranger — the one who includes himself in the name by saying “our”?

The text calls him a “man” – the generic term for a human being, a generality that is especially striking because others in the story, the traveling Midianites and Ishmaelites, get named the usual way, according to their tribes.

The absence of a tribal name for the unidentified “man” is telling. If the stranger is “no tribe at all,” he must stand for “everyone,” any human being at all. Dotan is “our way of thinking,” and the “our” in Dotan is the way any human being might think and behave.

Alas, that turns out to be the problem. We would like to think that Joseph’s brothers, our Jewish progenitors, would be more ethical, more compassionate, and more just than everyone else back then. But they weren’t. They were jealous and small-minded; vengeful to the point of considering fratricide. They sold their own brother into slavery, and then covered up their act by lying to their father. It cannot get much worse than that. Every Yom Kippur, in fact, we recite a martyrology (Eleh Ezk’rah) that goes so far as to imagine that the persecution of Jews in Roman times was a delayed punishment for the brothers’ crime against Joseph.

To be sure, the brothers were not all of one mind. Judah, say the Rabbis, was not pure evil; he could have convinced the brothers to spare Joseph; but he hadn’t the courage to do so. Reuben did try to save Joseph – but failed. As the stranger pointing to Dotan is “everyone,” so the brothers in Dotan are anyone — any group of people at all, that is — in this case, Jews, who act out a scenario that includes enslavement, a bungled attempt by one brother to save the victim, a second brother afraid to stand up for what is right, and a cover-up to their father who, they know, will grieve to the day he dies.

Apparently, Jews are not beyond such things. Judaism demands a higher standard than what we see in this week’s portion. It follows that we should exercise special vigilance to make sure we do not fall into the pattern of being just anyone, in our own day. God expects more of us; as we do, of ours

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