- Posted by Elaine Zecher
- On January 6, 2017
- 0 Comments
Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we make our way toward Shabbat.
In last week’s Torah portion, I wrote about the trajectory of Biblical Joseph’s life from the “pit to the prison to the palace.” I first learned about this idea years ago at a rabbinic conference in North Carolina from a Christian preacher who reminded the congregation how each of us may experience moments of despair but it doesn’t mean life needs to remain in that dark place. He also used another image: a flower does not have to apologize that it grows out of the darkness of the dirt. Both of his ideas have stayed with me and I have cited him often even after many years.
In this week’s Torah portion, though Joseph is in the palace, he has watched the devastating effect of the predicted famine as people travel from all over to procure food. There is much darkness over the face of the earth. And hunger, too.
One family from Canaan learned that there was food in Egypt so they traveled there to secure it. They are Joseph’s brothers. But they didn’t recognize him even though he surely knew who they were. Joseph could have sought revenge. He could have used his position in the palace to punish them, but he chose a different path.
When the brothers arrived the first time to Egypt, they did not bring their younger and now favored brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother of the same mother, Rachel. Joseph instructed them that if they return, they must bring that son. Since the famine was severe, they returned, this time with Benjamin. They still didn’t know who Joseph was. As a test, Joseph surreptitiously hid a goblet in his younger brother’s sack and then proceeded to accuse the brothers of stealing it. Joseph declared that whoever has the goblet “shall become his slave.” Would the brothers defend this favored son or cast his fate to slavery as they had done to Joseph years before?
The brothers were aghast at the accusation and feared for Benjamin’s life. They had promised their father, Jacob, who still grieved over the loss of Joseph that they would bring the youngest back.
Then Judah [son of Leah] stepped forward. (Genesis 44:18). Years before he didn’t save Joseph, but here was his chance. He pleaded with Joseph. And then, in one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, Joseph disclosed his true self. “I am your brother, Joseph he whom you sold into Egypt!” (Genesis 45:4) His explanation of past events may seem surprising:
“Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (Genesis 45:5-7)
Joseph rewrote the story of his life not as a victim of his immaturity of self- aggrandizing dream interpretation or as the target of jealousy by his brothers. He did not become immobilized but saw through and beyond to a greater purpose for his existence and his family’s. With a story that could remain dark and full of dirt, he posited a theory of blossoming beauty, of sacred possibility.
Joseph brought his family to live in Egypt. His family will survive though there are foreboding gloomy clouds in the distant future. For that moment, however, the trajectory of Joseph’s life flowers into the promise of possibility. Perhaps, it is the lessons learned then that plant positive seeds of survival that take us through dark moments and will assist the Jewish people through the generations.
As the New Year dawns and Shabbat beckons us, how will we tell the narrative of our lives from the past into the future? May it call us to action, to step forward and bring forward proactive and hopeful prospects.
Shabbat Shalom and happy new year!
Qabbalat Shabbat begins at 6:00 p.m. tonight and Torah study follows a short Shabbat morning service at 9:00 a.m.