“Hey, Those Are My Cookies!”

Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, Head of School 

AAA predicts that about 150 million Americans will travel away from home during the last week in December – nearly triple the number that traveled over Thanksgiving. Traveling to be with family for Chanukah, Christmas, or New Years brings many delights and some challenges. The crucible of family gatherings and reunions can be intense. Especially because, as one study noted, three-quarters of us have at least one family member who annoys us. (See Why Families Fight During HolidaysThe Atlantic (Dec 23, 2013)) with one report finding three-quarters of us have at least one family member who annoys us. 

An aspect of that appears in Torah this week, when the biblical Joseph (of technicolor dreamcoat fame) is sent away from home to find his brothers. Their eventual reunion ends very badly for Joseph. His brothers toss him into an empty pit, leaving him to starve. They slightly change their minds just long enough to sell Joseph into slavery but tell their father he was killed by a wild animal. That part of the Joseph tale is introduced with a verse, his brothers saw Joseph “from afar, but before he came close they conspired to kill him.” (Genesis 37:18)

Back to that verse after sharing my favorite airplane travel story  – about a woman who buys a book and package of cookies at the airport before boarding the plane – putting them both in her bag. She rests her bag on the empty seat between her and another passenger in the boarding lounge. She dozes-off a bit. When she wakes she opens her book and the package of cookies. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices that the passenger next to her stuff also takes a cookie out of the package. “Hmmm,” she thinks to herself, “he must be really hungry.”

Returning to her book she takes another cookie. Then he takes another cookie. She tries to ignore it, not wanting to make a scene. But it happens again, she takes a cookie then he takes a cookie. She is starting to feel angry about the cookie thief. Finally, there’s just one cookie left. The brazen cookie thief reaches in to take it. With a smile on his face, he breaks it in half, offering half to her. She’s fuming. Then he gets up and walks away. She’s relieved to see him going to a different gate, grateful she doesn’t have to fly with such a horrible person. 

She boards her plane, settles into her seat, and opens her bag to take out the book. She gasps. Underneath her book is her package of cookies. Then it hits her, “If my cookies are here, then that other package – the one I ate from – was his! He’s no thief. I am! After I stole half of his cookies, he even split the last one with me!” 

Now back to the Torah verse, the plain reading of which seems clear. But is it? 

For some, like Ramban (13th century, Spain) the phrase “from afar” teaches us that the brothers had been trying for a while to kill Joseph “from afar.” They were so annoyed by Joseph, their jealousy triggered by the special treatment he received from their father, and Joseph’s dreams of superiority that they already had tried killing him from a distance.  When those efforts failed they got up close to toss him in the pit. 

For others, like Sforno (16th century, Italy), the attempted killing is read in the opposite way. They perceive the phrase “to kill” as meant reflexively as if Joseph was the one actually plotting to kill his brothers. 

The story of intense family conflict reads differently depending on whether one sides with Ramban or with Sforno.

The same is true for us.

Sometimes we are absolutely sure that one thing is true (that the stranger ate our cookies) when the opposite is true. And how must that story have seemed to the stranger who shared his last cookie with the woman who was stealing from him! 

As so many of us are about to spend Chanukah reuniting with family and friends, we’d be wise to suspend our assumptions about the ill motives or evil intentions of others. Instead, maybe it would be best to pause. Take a breath. Then imagine what other perspective or motivation might be triggering their actions. 

That pausing and re-imagining are not easy. It calls for us to develop softer hearts and more open minds. It is wise to remind ourselves that things are not always as they first seem to us. It is important to cultivate seeing things from the perspectives of others. If everything is exactly as we imagine it is — without being informed by different perspectives or experiences — then where is the room for learning anything new?!? In these intense days ahead – many of them away from the easy comfort of home – may we have the strength to quiet our assumptions and the wisdom to hear the perspectives of others. 

Safe travels and happy Chanukah!

* Thanks to Craig Thompson for his blog post about the origins and appropriations of the Cookie Thief story at clearingcustoms.net