Joseph, Don't Go!*

Reading: Genesis 37:40

1 And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. 4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. 5 And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. 6 And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: 7 For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. 8 And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. 9 And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. 10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? 11 And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying. 12 And his brethren went to feed their father's flock in Shechem. 13 And Israel said unto Joseph, Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them. And he said to him, Here am I. 14 And he said to him, Go, I pray thee, see whether it be well with thy brethren, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again. So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field: and the man asked him, saying, What seekest thou? 16 And he said, I seek my brethren: tell me, I pray thee, where they feed their flocks. 17 And the man said, They are departed hence; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan. And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan. 18 And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. 19 And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh....
My wife's grandmother (of blessed memory) used to tell a story is told about an elderly Jewish lady in Eastern Europe who would sit attentively in her seat in the women's gallery of the synagogue, following the weekly reading carefully in the Yiddish commentary, the Tzena Urena. As the reader progressed through the opening words of this week's section, her countenance became increasingly filled with consternation, until she could hold it back no longer, and blurted out audibly:

"Joseph, don't do it again! Didn't you learn your lesson from last year?!"

Indeed, as we review the events that are related in this week's reading, it is hard to suppress a similar reaction. At times we direct our frustration at Joseph. At times, it might be towards other players in the drama: Jacob, Judah, Reuben or the other brothers. How can they continue to act so stupidly year after year?

And those of you who can see matters from a broader perspective may find another address for the complaints--the Almighty himself: Ribbono shel-olam, you say--Master of the Universe!--How could you stand by and allow the situation to degenerate so tragically without calling a stop before matters got out of hand?

Actually, this last question is the easiest one to answer, since God's role in the story seems to be the most understandable of all the players. After all, he had a clear agenda. Back in Genesis 15 he had informed Abraham that his descendants would end up enslaved in a foreign land, which is precisely what is accomplished by the conclusion of the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph and his brothers is designed to bring about that situation.

Now this question of perspective makes all the difference in the world in how we evaluate the actions and decisions of the protagonists in our Torah reading.

Seen in their own context, we have before us a sequence of mistakes and weaknesses (and only occasional glimmers of virtue).

Jacob, for example, violates every rule of good parenting in the preference that he displays towards Joseph. Joseph in turn acts like an obnoxious brat when he flaunts his ambitions and his favoured status before his siblings. Even so, none of this can justify the murderous intentions of the brothers, or the vacillations of Reuben and Judah in not nipping the whole story in the bud.

Each of the figures can be taken to task for their misdeeds. This is the case, at least, if we choose to ignore the historical and theological context in which they are unfolding.

Imagine, if you will, that Jacob were here before us to answer to our criticisms. He could reply in all innocence: "I've done nothing wrong! If I had not provoked the jealousy of Joseph's brothers, then he never would have been sold to Egypt, and the family would never have joined him there! The Holy One's pledge to Abraham would never have been fulfilled. No Egypt; no Passover, no Sinai... So why blame me?"

Now that the tone has been set, we can imagine Joseph's brothers, and Joseph himself, stepping out from the dark corner where they have been hitherto trying to maintain invisibility, and offering the same excuse. And truly it is a very powerful argument.

Except that the Torah itself does not buy it.

The complex tale of Joseph's encounter with his siblings as viceroy of Egypt has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some commentators view it as an act of vengeance, others as a test of the brothers' regret or repentance; or perhaps as a combination of different motives.

What all the explanations have in common is the assumption that the brothers had done something terribly wrong. Even when Joseph consoles them with the assurance that some good has resulted from their actions, it is clear to both him and them that he is not absolving them of their guilt. "As for you," he tells them (genesis 50:20), "you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good." There is no attempt here to deny the evil of their intentions.

Our sages too were not squeamish about taking our forefathers to task when they deserve it. When Joseph showed special affection for Benjamin by giving him more gifts than the others, the Talmud complains:

Is it conceivable that Joseph should make the same mistake as Jacob had made?! It was on account of two selas weight of wool that Jacob had added for Joseph's coat that his brothers became jealous of him, culminating in their going down to Egypt. And now he is behaving the same way towards Benjamin!
Yes, neither the Torah nor our sages are ready to gloss over their misdeeds, in spite of their usefulness for God's plan.

We can learn from this that, as humans beings, it is not our job to second-guess the Creator, or to help him with his historical projects. Our job is to do what is right, as we evaluate the circumstances from our limited perspective. As the Talmud puts it: "A judge can only act on what is before his eyes."

Otherwise, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans could have pleaded that they were merely carrying out God's orders in punishing Israel for our iniquities. The prophets and sages saw it otherwise: Although God may have manipulated events in order to inflict deserved chastisement, the nations who conquered and oppressed Israel did not do so for that reason, but out of their own selfish motives; and they are held accountable for their deeds.

As for God's great historical plans, he has many ways to accomplish them without asking or forcing us to do wrong.

This too is something that can be learned from our reading.

Let's go back to that little old lady with her Tzena Urena. What if we decided to humour her? Imagine that we could go back in time. What could we do then to keep Jacob's family out of trouble?

Now as a member of the generation who learned its post-Einsteinian physics from Superman comics, I know two irrefutable facts about time-travel:

  1. It is done by spinning of moving faster than the speed of light.

  2. No matter what super powers you have been blessed with (and I am not at liberty to divulge this), you can never change history.

Indulge me nonetheless. We have beamed ourselves over to ancient Israel, and we want to keep Joseph out of trouble. What is the simplest way to achieve that objective?

It's really very simple.

Remember what happened when Jacob sent Joseph on his ill-fated mission to check up on his brothers: He got lost (He was probably too wrapped up in his daydreams). If matters had been allowed to take their natural course, he never would have made it to his rendezvous. He would have gone home, perhaps been scolded by his father, and would have missed the Ishmaelite caravan. He would not have reached Egypt, and who knows if we ever would have got to celebrate Passover?

All that stood between Joseph and our historical destiny was a casual stranger who happened along, and was able to give him some directions about how to find his brothers. If we had been able to divert that stranger, or otherwise remove him from the story, then history would have taken a crucially different course.

Who was this stranger?

Even so, this seems a roundabout way of doing things. Rather than allowing Joseph to go astray, and then sending an angel to aim him back on his proper course, why didn't God just keep him from getting lost in the first place?!

I think this is precisely the point of the incident: That is not the way God directs events. He does not prevent people from going astray or making their mistakes. This is true, whether we are speaking of misreading a road map, or trying to murder your brother. God does not interfere with your decisions. He will not make you smarter or more virtuous than you are. That is entirely your own business, and you have to take the responsibility for your actions.

As to fulfilling historical destiny, that is God's business. There are many ways that this can be accomplished without impinging on our free will. He can produce mysterious strangers, or send famines, or employ some more exotic mechanism to get Jacob's family into Egypt. But as Ramban said so eloquently, all the human effort that we might invest in such endeavours are not going to make a difference. Joseph's brothers have no grounds for pleading that they were helping God work out his plan for Jewish history.

This theme was summarized in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 85:1) by Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani, citing the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil" (Jeremiah 29:11): The tribes were busy with the selling of Joseph. Jacob was busy with his sackcloth and mourning. Judah was busy looking for a woman. While the Holy One was creating the light of the Messiah!
The 15th-century Spanish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama presents a remarkable interpretation of that midrash:
In the Joseph story, we find all the protagonists playing their own parts, carrying out their personal objectives, without affecting God's overall design. Quite the contrary, the freedom of choice of none of the participants is interfered with in any way... The chain of events in which the jealousy of Joseph's brothers played a prominent part, ultimately proved to have become the instrument for carrying out God's design. However God could have found many other means to achieve the same end. Therefore the brothers cannot claim exoneration by saying that what they had done helped God to achieve his aim. The Bible is full of similar lessons.
We live in a world in which the petty deeds of individuals seem to count very little against mighty political and historical forces. How many false political gods have been founded on the premise that "the end justifies the means," that immoral acts can find their justification in the furthering of exalted destinies! How often do we get sent the message that the global economy would be fine if it weren't for all those troublesome people who keep getting in its way?

As Rabbi Arama perceived so clearly, the Torah teaches otherwise. Even the furthering of God's own plans can never be a justification for unethical deeds.

Seen in this light, maybe our little old lady is not being completely out of line in her expectation that Jacob's family--to which we all belong-- will learn its lessons in time for the next time we read this story.


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*Lay sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, December 20 1997