Rabbi Janet Burden, 6 January 2017
With this week’s reading, Vayyigash, we come to the very heart of the Joseph story, the “novella” which occupies the last four parashiot of the book of Genesis. The incredible build-up of tension is released as Joseph bursts into tears and identifies himself to his brothers. He says to them, “You may have meant ill, but God meant it for good when you sold me into Egypt.” Structurally, this dramatic ‘crux’ offers what appears to be the main message of the tale, but it is a little hard – at least for me – to stomach.
Joseph’s assertion sets God up as some kind of Grand Puppeteer, with the script for the human drama written and, more significantly, all the roles cast. The understanding he offers offends our sense of justice. We are supposed to accept the brothers’ wickedness as all part of God’s great plan? That’s what Joseph apparently wants us to do. After all, he has repeatedly set himself up as the “Great Interpreter,” interpreting his own and others’ dreams. So far, he has been right – but should we trust his guidance here? We should not forget that this is the man who is willing to stage manage not only his own family, but also thousands of his Egyptians – with benign intention, to be sure, but… Joseph never hesitates, never doubts. He trusts himself as the agent of God’s will. Yet the ultimate impact of Joseph’s handling of the famine in the region is the consolidation of all wealth and power into the hands of Pharaoh. Perhaps he trusted too much in his own interpretation of things?
I would suggest that a better guide for us, especially in these uncertain times, can be found in the words and actions of Joseph’s brother, Judah. Judah is not as presumptuous as Joseph, and shows real anguish when the brothers stand accused of the theft of the cup. He is prepared to take responsibility on behalf of his family, even when he knows he himself is innocent:
16 And Judah said, What shall we say to my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found.
Some have speculated that the iniquity that Judah refers to here is the brothers’ long-term guilt, but this is not an essential interpretation. Judah is acting from a place of deep family loyalty and morality, understanding the potential consequences should Benjamin not return to Jacob. Judah responds human(e)ly to the human crisis before him. This guides him towards right action, leading to reconciliation. Thus the alternative ‘lesson’ might be that , like Judah, we are called upon to think through the consequences of our actions and not to trust overmuch in our own interpretations of the unfolding of human history. We cannot know the end; we can only take responsibility for taking moral action as the action unfolds.
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