The Joseph saga

December 18, 2017

Torah Thought

The great and most colorful Joseph saga extends over four Torah portions and 13 chapters. How opportune it is as we celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah and the reading of Joseph’s awesome adventures, that the Jewish experience has often been to find ourselves like Joseph in the darkness of the pit without losing faith in the light of redemption yet to emerge.

Just like Joseph, the dreamer and interpreter of dreams (he should have kept some of them to himself!), the Jewish people have believed that noble, as well as disturbing dreams have the potential and power to transform reality. In the way of Joseph who was not accepted by his own immature kin—begrudging him his unique spirit and grandiose ideas of a youngster whose father’s favoritism put him at risk—we have felt isolated throughout much of history.

We have been rejected for insisting on living our own authentic lives as a minority. Our faithfulness to our faith and conscience has been interpreted as a negative reflection of aloofness, rather than one choice. Joseph, through his mind’s genius and heart’s compassion, was able to save both his adopted empire of Egypt and his family from small Canaan. In the process, he taught us that borders and feelings do not have to be obstacles to a constructive response to life and death issues.

Rather than dwelling on past hurts and injustices that could have crippled him and others, Joseph managed to transcend his personal insecurities and apprehensions to accomplish lasting goals, using his talents to society’s benefit. Joseph wisely chose the high road, becoming a great Egyptian, while also earning his status as a great Hebrew brother and leader. His early self-centered dreams turned into a blessed reality for all concerned through his maturity of character.

The ultimate challenge of this mighty ruler, second only to Pharaoh, was to conquer and control his own raging passions, which he had already proven with tempting and aggressive Mrs. Potiphar, earning him the rabbis’ honorific appellation “Hatzadik” (The saintly one). He was able to repeat it with his brothers at the pinnacle of his brilliant career with so much at stake for himself and for them. What a moving moment of victory it is for all concerned when Joseph can no longer hold back his tears and eagerly desires to reveal his true identity to his overwhelmed brothers, not quite realizing that they would never recover from the shock of the encounter and/or from the guilt that would continue to burden them.

Perhaps Joseph’s favorable decision to reach out to them was ultimately prompted by Judah’s display of sincere love for Brother Benjamin, as well as for father Jacob’s well-being. Earlier, Joseph learned of his brothers’ remorse and fear when being challenged by him, acknowledging their past wrongdoing. Upon reconnecting to his family he was ennobled and made whole. Joseph could have abandoned his Hebrew background, protecting his painfully acquired identity and status, but he knew that his remarkable life’s success had to carry a humbling message of healing and gratitude.

Joseph appeals to us in his humaneness which is not lost when he becomes powerful. His survivor’s skills of ascending from the pit to the palace inspire us, reflecting the historic Jewish challenge to survive and even thrive. He is the prototype model of the modern Jew, enlightening us about living in two worlds. He perceived God’s guiding hand in his tumultuous life, steeled and sensitized by adversity turned into advantage.

Joseph and the Maccabees of all ages have taught us that to be a Jew is to somehow make a difference, reducing darkness and rejoicing in the light’s promise.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim

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