“Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the river?” asked the scorpion.
The frog hesitated and said, “How do I know that if I try to help you, you won’t try to kill me?”
"Because," the scorpion replied, "If I try to kill you, then I would die too, for you see I cannot swim!"
Understanding the scorpion’s words to be true, the frog agreed to take the scorpion across the river. Halfway across the river, the frog suddenly felt a sharp sting in his back and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the scorpion remove his stinger from the frog's back. A deadening numbness began to creep into his limbs.
"You fool!" croaked the frog, "Now we shall both die! Why on earth did you do that?"
The scorpion shrugged and said, "I could not help myself. It is my nature." And they both sank into the waters of the flowing river.
But regardless of where this tale comes from, the final comment by the scorpion is the one that resounds in a way sending shivers down our spines. When the scorpion says, “It’s my nature,” it is as if he abdicates all sense of personal responsibility. He says, “This is the way that I am, this is who I am, this is what I am, this is what the world expects of me, and this is what I do. I’m a scorpion. I’m cunning and deceitful. I sting other creatures for a living, even if it is to my own detriment. And for you, Frog, it will be no different.” We are unable to expect anything different from the scorpion because “this is his nature.”
But is a creature’s nature so narrowly defined, so one-sided, so seemingly simple? I remember watching an episode of Dora the Explorer with my daughter Hannah. Dora and her monkey-friend Boots are always trying to evade Swiper the Fox, who repeatedly attempts to steal from them. But in one episode, Dora and Boots hear a cry coming from the bushes – a baby fox has been separated from his parents. Swiper arrives on the scene to try and steal from Dora and Boots, notices the baby fox, and volunteers to help Dora and Boots on their journey. Dora and Boots are skeptical and their friends are bewildered because of Swiper’s reputation, his perceived nature. But Swiper helps to carry the baby fox. He feeds him, nurtures him, and at the right moment, reunites him with his parents. Such behavior runs counter to the way in which Swiper is usually presented in the Doraseries. Is this an aberration, a fun little poke on the part of the animators and storywriters? Is Swiper “defying his nature?” Could he be defying what we perceive to be his nature?
Sometimes a creature’s, or better yet, a person’s nature surprises us, for better or worse. Maybe the truth is that the concept of “our nature” is in fact, rather complex. Such is a message presented by our Torah portion Parashat Vayeshev. In the opening chapter of our parashah, we know very little about Joseph – save that he is his father’s favourite child, he receives a coat of many colours, and his brothers revile him because he relates dreams to them in which Joseph appears to reign over them and dominate them. One day, as Joseph approaches, the brothers conspire to kill him. They call him “that dreamer.” Only Reuben and Judah speak out against the other brothers’ actions, ultimately seeling him to the Ishmaelites.
But Torah challenges us to see each of these characters in greater depth. Neal Shusterman, acclaimed American author of young adult fiction has been quoted as saying, “…One thing you learn when you’ve lived as long as I have—people aren’t all good, and people aren’t all bad. We move in and out of darkness and light all of our lives.” And the opening of Parashat Vayeshev is only the introduction in a narrative spanning fourteen chapters, that we will read over four weeks.
Arguably, Joseph could have done better. He comes across as a spoiled, well-dressed, self-aggrandizing young man. But he is about to go on a journey – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He will suffer in the dungeons of Pharaoh, rise to fame and prominence in Egypt, help save the Egyptian people from famine, and eventually make peace, reconciling his differences with his brothers. So what is Joseph’s nature?
Joseph’s brothers could have done better, far better. Their actions are violent and reprehensible. Perhaps it is important to note, though not excusable, that they feel hurt, and are filled with jealousy. But they will dutifully tend to their father, relocate their family in search of food, save Simeon, and Judah, fearing for his life, will eventually stand up to Joseph, leading to that fateful moment of reconciliation. So how do we describe the brothers’ nature?
Torah teaches us through this lengthy narrative that human nature is complex and always in a state-of-flux. Torah doesn’t allow us to glimpse perfection. Torah doesn’t show us people who do right all the time and who never make a mistake. Think of Moses’ remarkable leadership and how he struck a rock out of anger, precluding himself from entering the Promised Land. Torah doesn’t show us people whose behavior should be completely idolized, placed on a pedestal, and left as unattainable. Think of Aaron’s actions in helping to construct the Golden Calf. Torah doesn’t show us people whose nature is one-sided.
Because human nature is multi-faceted, complex, and Torah knows this. The remarkable nature of Torah is that time and time again our sacred text presents characters in the fullness of their essence, in the fullness of their humanity. Torah presents everyday people – people who have so much to affirm and celebrate and still wrestle with life, people who fail only to demonstrate resilience, people who succeed only to be knocked down again, people like you and me who amidst a world filled with skepticism and disbelief continue to search for and find ways to appreciate God’s presence in our lives, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.
We cannot afford to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity is one-sided, or even that certain segments of society can be labeled in the same way. Think of the labels that describe us on a daily basis. What does it mean to be a parent, a child, or a sibling? What does it mean to be a Jew, to be labeled or label someone as Progressive, as Orthodox? What in light of recent events in the Middle East does it mean to label someone or be labeled as an Israeli, as Palestinian, or in another topic from that fraught region, what does it mean to be called, or to call oneself Syrian? In an argument from theology, what does it mean to regard oneself or be regarded as a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist? Recognising the very complexity of these labels, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has commented, “There is an atheist at the heart of every believer, and a believer at the heart of every atheist.”
Our challenge is to go beyond labels, to go beyond the simple classifications, and to recognize the beautiful, the colourful, and even, admittedly, the sometimes frustrating aspects of what we understand as human nature, what we understand about each other. In a scene from Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch addresses his daughter Scout and says, “You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
So perhaps that journey begins with us. In an effort to better understand one another, we need to begin by understanding the complexity of our own nature. All of us wear coats of many colours. Sometimes those coats shine with brilliance, freshness and exuberance. Other times the coats we wear are torn, tattered, frayed, and rough around the edges. Sometimes those coats give warmth and we can share that warmth with others; other times they offer little protection from the elements and the coldness that we feel extends – either directly or inadvertently – to others. Our coats, like our lives, like our natures, are striped, are dotted, and they come not only in every colour imaginable, but also in each and every shade of grey.
 Genesis 37:1-11.
 Genesis 37:18-27.
 Numbers 20:1-14.
 Exodus 32.
 Rabbi Leon Morris in an interview with Rabbi Neil Gillman: http://www.adultjewishlearning.org/index.php?blog2&blid=23 . Also quoted in Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990, p. 207. “Neither classical theism nor atheism can do justice to the complex nature of our relationship with God.”
 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mocking/section2.rhtml -- my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird was at home when I wrote this sermon! I remember the quote as appearing very early – within the first thirty or so pages.