Sunday, December 1, 2013

Joseph, His Brothers, and the Rest of Us Jews: Our Mission to the World: Torah Portion Vayigash

            In this Torah portion, Joseph continues his cat-and-mouse game with his puzzled brothers, who cannot connect this austere, distant, kohl-eyed stranger with their frightened, seventeen-year-old stripling brother whom they sold into slavery so many years ago. He accuses them of spying, theft, and other capital crimes against the Imperial Kingdom of Egypt; he warns them that Benjamin, their aged father Israel’s favorite, must remain with him as an eternal hostage, for the crime of stealing his “divining cup.”
            The brothers are abashed, shocked, and confused by this string of charges; they are simple country folk, and out of their depth before this wily, sharp-tongued bureaucrat. Their heads are spinning, but they desperately recall their promise to their aged father: no harm must come to his favorite, to Benjamin. Joseph finishes his harangue, folds his arms, and waits for the brothers’ reply. A deadly silence falls.
            Into the breach steps Judah—it is clear that we are seeing a foreshadowing of that tribe’s leadership position in the future, and why we are, today, called “Jews” (originally “Judeans”), and not “Benjaminites” or “Josephites.” His speech is fifteen verses in length, and it is both simple and eloquent, reminding the Pharaoh’s viceroy why, if he imprisons their baby brother, Father Jacob will die of a broken heart, having lost both of his favorites, Joseph and Benjamin.
            These words penetrate Joseph’s heart of stone, and break the psychological barrier he has erected between himself and his family; he can no longer maintain his cool, polished, cosmopolitan façade. In a choked voice, he orders his guards to clear the room of all Egyptians save himself, and, switching to Hebrew, he confesses to his shocked brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father yet live?”
            Of which “father” is Joseph speaking? Hasn’t Israel, his beloved parent, been the subject of the entire discussion up to this point? I believe that this, his first, self-revealingly honest query to his brothers, his first confession on their mutual road to reconciliation, points to something deeper than the physical father to whom they all owe their beginnings. No: we are speaking here of Israel’s ideals—the life-lessons which the young Jacob learned during his experiences with Esav, with Lavan; his years of infertility-struggle with Rachel; his finally learning to love Leah, who rose above her demeaned status to become a proud mother of tribes; and not to forget Bilhah and Zilpah, whose voices also yearned to rise beyond their scorned concubine-status. All the brothers who, symbolically, become our own fathers, are eternally bequeathing to us our destiny, in this confusing, competitive, modern world of economics and politics, where we struggle daily to find our place.
Where, indeed, do we Jews belong, in a world which continues to need our fabled morality, our ideals, our refusal to follow a crowd to do evil? It will never be an easy world in which to be a Jew, not if being a Jew means to cry out, “What you are doing is wrong, and I must help you to change”—be it social conditions, poverty, ignorance, or the Abyss which threatens to cut off human beings from understanding that we are all, all of us!—made in the Image of God.