At the intersection of ancient roads heading to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria is the town of Dothan. The dry, rocky landscape was dotted with pits dug to store precious rainwater. As an archeological site, the location is an entryway to understanding life in ancient times. As the backdrop for a biblical story, it is a metaphor for times when life can become treacherous and unfair.
The root of the name Dothan in Hebrew means “pit.” By its very name, the location signaled out a warning. Digging pits was the key to water collection and storage. Plaster applied to the walls of the pit created a life-sustaining well. While a well had to be deep enough for collection and retention of the water, it also created a dangerous abyss. Fall into the well in a rainy season and you could drown. Get thrown into the well when dry, and you might die of thirst.
In Torah, Joseph’s brothers, jealous of Joseph’s favored status, threw him into a pit near Dothan. Why were they jealous? Joseph boasted of dreaming he would lord over his family. He flaunted the colorful coat given him by his father. In a sense, because Joseph was arrogant, he dug his own pit. But Joseph’s egoism alone was not sufficient to justify entrapment by his brothers.
The clan of Jacob frothed up their jealousy into hatred. Of the ten siblings forming an unholy tribunal, only Reuben and Judah cautioned against killing Joseph. Yet neither had the fortitude to stop attempted fratricide. Rather than killing him, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery.
I too have traversed a life landscape dotted with pits both dangerous and life-giving. My displays of egoism garnered antipathy. My occasional zealousness earned condemnation. Like Joseph, there are times when I failed to appreciate the damaging impact of my words and actions. What we learn from Joseph is that it didn’t matter if the dreams he shared were true. It didn’t matter that he had every right to wear a beautiful coat. He failed to notice the effects of his words and actions in front of his brothers.
The reaction of the brothers was immoral and brutal. Joseph’s arrogance was no excuse for their plotting murder. And yet, the story asks us to consider if Joseph should have noticed that he walked a dangerous path in a region dotted with pits. In this way, Torah asks us to consider how we contribute to our own problems, even when we are judged exceedingly punitively by our peers or family. Torah asks you to check your ego and anticipate the hazards ahead if you don’t regulate your own character.
Consider how the Joseph story is a metaphor for your own life. Marriages and career choices can be both wells that sustain us or pits that draw us down. Whether with our life partners or business associates, being smart or being right is insufficient if we wish to remain in safe relationships. We live our best lives only when we are vigilant about the effect we have upon others, especially those closest to us.
We know the landscape of life is filled with dangerous chasms. Walk cautiously. Sometimes it is the wells that we dig that are also the pitfalls of our lives.
Rabbi Evan Krame