D’var Torah by Richard Walden, adult member
December 22, 2001
From the beginning, destiny is calling Joseph. He is not like his 11 other brothers. He is different, set apart. He can read dreams and has his own dreams of a greater destiny. In his youth and immaturity he shares visions of his future stature without concern for the feelings of others and we see painted the picture of a spoiled, arrogant child. One who tattles on his brothers and who, in the eyes of his family, seems to “lord it” over all.
Even so, Jacob has a special love for his younger son, symbolized by the gift of an “ornamented tunic.” Perhaps Jacob sees some of himself in Joseph and looks beyond his son’s behavior-at least, that is, until Joseph shares the dream of “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars.bowing down” to him. Jacob, we are told, “kept the matter in mind,” and shortly thereafter sends his son out into the world. When asked to go look for his brothers, Joseph’s response to Jacob is the prophetic, “Hineni” the very same word uttered by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses to answer God’s call with “Here I am.” And so, Joseph begins a long and arduous journey to find his destiny, to make his dreams come true.
In this week’s portion, parashat Vayigash, Joseph has arrived. He has matured through many trials and has been fully tested. He stumbles and falls many times, but each time he rises up again-and God is with him. He has learned to use his gift of prophecy in a fruitful way-has added new skills to his resume. He knows when to be silent and when to speak-how to skillfully use talents honed through experience and some level of suffering. In short order, arriving in front of Pharaoh at age 30, he has become the lord of all Egypt and is denied nothing but the throne itself. He has ruled the land during 7 years of prophesied plenty and we are now entering the first few of the predicted 7 years of famine. So, at about the age of 40, he finally begins to fulfill his final destiny as coincidence brings his brothers before him. The same family that cast him away out of jealousy and anger now bow down before him, begging for sustenance during a horrible famine.
Joseph keeps himself hidden at first. He holds back. He contrives a test for the brothers, perhaps a way to prove that they have truly repented and “turned.” Satisfied that his brothers exhibit teshuvah, Joseph reveals himself in today’s portion after Judah pleads for mercy. Where we might expect Joseph to jump in with a huge “I told you so,” or effect some kind of philosophical revenge, instead, he sobs uncontrollably. The years of separateness are now ended and it is clear that not only have the brothers turned to a better path, but also that Joseph has grown and his “gift” finally fits him properly. All that is important now is reunion-bringing the family back together and meeting the ultimate destiny set out not only for Joseph and his family but also for the Jewish people as a whole. The past is wiped away in the flood of Joseph’s tears and a new beginning is opened.
What does the Joseph story teach us? What are the messages? We are taught that everything is in Torah if we turn it and turn it. Yet, this portion seems more difficult than most to penetrate; the story itself is compelling and lyrical. Is there something beyond the peshat, “plain” meaning-something deeper and more eternal? Is there some mystical “a-ha,” that may, for a brief shining moment, let us touch something divine? Surely it is a “coming of age” story. It is, perhaps, a road map to some method of growing into one’s own gifts, or finding them. There is a clear sense of balance that seems to be necessary to move forward, for we see the pendulum swing heavily in this story. Jacob’s positive love for his son is contrasted with the negative side of love that Potiphar’s wife exhibits, and is further contrasted with the interlude story of Onan who wastes his seed and will not fulfill the obligation to sire children for a deceased brother. There is a sense that balancing all these aspects of love is the true path. Never at the fringes, always somewhere in the middle. But knowing where the middle lies is only derived from experience, from trial and error. Joseph first misuses his prophetic gift, then holds back from using it and finally learns how to balance. He is appropriately cautious, sensitive to using it in a controlled manner.
The theme of the “ornamented tunic” also reappears. First, it is a symbol of his favored status and becomes a source of envy. It is used as a ruse by his brothers to prove his death. Potiphar’s wife uses his stolen cloak, falsely, as evidence of his adulterous intentions. And yet again, when his brothers appear, Joseph is cloaked in Egyptian robes and hidden. Perhaps this is the theme of not judging a book by its cover. Telling us that in order to know oneself or another person, this it is necessary to look beyond the outer trappings. In this context, perhaps a message of balance again-that we all use our outer “selves” as a shield, and can direct opinion by how we project ourselves-yet, to move forward, we must at some point reveal what is inside. Balancing the outer self and inner self are what provide peace and “echad,” oneness, wholeness.
The story is also a great presage to what is to come in Exodus. As if the Joseph cycle is not only about one man maturing and growing, but a “coming attraction” to the story of Moses and the Jewish people as a whole. Coming soon will be the same sense of separateness, of being sent out alone, of returning and finding Sinai. In fact, even though the 10 commandments have not yet been delivered at Sinai, we see so many teasers of them along Joseph’s journey: bowing down to “idols” in Joseph’s dream, his brothers swearing falsely to their father; the plot to murder Joseph; the potential for adultery with Potiphar’s wife-the list goes on. In this sense, the Joseph stories become the perfect transition from the stories of our Avot v’Imahot-from the journey of one person-to the journey of a whole people.
Or, as Freud says, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Perhaps the portion is what it means at face value. The Jewish people are about to begin their own journey with Moses-and the Joseph stories are tales about how to manage that journey; about how to manage the separateness the Jewish people will forever feel, about transitions and maturity. If the question all along is about being called by God and rising up to meet that call, well, the answer seems to be simply: there is no simple answer. All the stories, right up to this week’s culminating story, speak of just putting one foot in front of the other, moving ahead by trial and error, of never really knowing your destiny or how it will unfold. Perseverance, faith and love help-but at the end of the day, when you are thrown in the pit or the jail cell, it is up to each of us to rise up and try to move forward. And it may just be circumstance or luck that finally bring things to some conclusion. After all, even though Joseph becomes lord over all Egypt he does NOT seek out reunion with his family, he waits until opportunity arises.
Not really an exhilarating message is it? Not very mystical or divine is it? I guess sometimes life IS just about moving forward, getting up the next day. Most of what we do is a passage from one place to another and making the “getting there” useful is the trick. Maybe this year’s events underscore the need to rise up each day and move forward. To keep going even when it is hard, even when you doubt and fear what is to come next.
Or maybe I was just looking for too much in this portion. I turned 40 this year and entered into my own rite of passage with great thoughts that somehow turning some mathematical number might mean something. We are told the story of Rabbi Akiba beginning to study at 40-it is even said that one can’t study Kabbalah until reaching 40. Yet, the day passed. Nothing happened. The heavens haven’t opened and some great destiny has not been laid out before me. And if God did call, would I, like Joseph be able to say Hineni? Or would I end up lost in a pit, begging for help? Would any of us really know? I am no Hebrew scholar, but I do note that even when Joseph says Hineni, here I am, the language is Vayomer Lo Hineni (he said to him I am here). But if I gloss quickly, can’t Lo also mean NO? I am not here, not ready? Is doubt ever really far from us?
Not knowing, perhaps the best we can each do is to live the best we know how, to use our own gifts as best we can. Learn, grow and mature. Manage through all those difficult transitions that we face in ways small and large throughout our lives. Maybe sometimes our portion in life is only to say the Shma as we go to bed and when we rise up in the morning to thank God for the beauty of another day, another chance to make a difference. Another chance to touch something divine or just marvel at the day. Pressing forward to some unknown future, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. Hoping that if destiny ever does call that God will be with us.