By Tricia Brauner
45:1 Yosef could no longer restrain himself in the presence of all who were stationed around him, he called out: Have everyone leave me! So no one stood (in attendance upon) him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers.
2 He put forth his voice in weeping: the Egyptians heard, Pharaoh’s household heard.
3 Then Yosef said to his brothers: I am Yosef. Is my father still alive? But his brothers were not able to answer him,
4 Yosef said to his brothers: Pray come close to me! They came close. He said: I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.
5 But now, do not be pained, and do not let (anger) rage in your eyes that you sold me here! For it was to save life that God sent me on before you.
In the Beginning: A New English Rendition of the Book of Genesis,
Translated by Everett Fox (New York: Schocken Books, 1983)
This evening I will talk about our human propensity to find meaning in adversity, our need to find purpose in events, especially those that seem bad, evil, or misfortunate. In religious terms, we call this God’s Providence.
This week’s parsha, Vayyigash, is part of a long narrative, the Joseph story, that explains how the Israelites ended up in Egypt and ultimately in slavery. In this parsha Jacob and his household—threescore and ten (a ‘magically perfect’ number, 7 x 10)—go down into Goshen, to the best Egyptian pastureland, as guests of Pharaoh.
And how did this journey begin? It began with Joseph being sold into slavery (8 chapters and two weeks ago, in parsha Vayyeshev).
Biblical scholars see at least two authors’ hands in the Joseph narrative. One author sees God’s providence at work, the other rejects the idea of God’s involvement and emphasizes human designs: Joseph’s brothers hated him because their father favored him and because Joseph—perhaps thoughtlessly, perhaps purposefully, told them his dreams of being superior to them (remember, dreams were thought to foretell the future). In fact, even Jacob rebuked Joseph for such dreams. And Joseph’s integrity in Egypt in resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife shows that he deserves to rise in power and position.
Anyway, the brothers plotted to kill Joseph. Reuben, however, hoping to save him and send him home to Jacob, convinced the others to throw him into an empty water cistern instead. And while the brothers were sitting around eating and talking about selling Joseph into slavery, some Midianites pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him themselves to an Ishmaelite trading caravan on its way to Egypt. To cover their complicity, the brothers bring to Jacob Joseph’s bloody coat. Was this not even more cruel than telling the truth? Were they also revenging themselves on the father who favored Joseph?
An important detail in the narrative is that Joseph himself acknowledged that he was “stolen away” (“ki goonov goonavti”—from the same root as “goniff” [40:15]). Yet in the passage we have just read, Joseph identifies himself to his brothers as “Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Is this a bad fusing of the two separate narratives? a poor editing job?
I think that despite the emotion Joseph has shown—he wept so loudly that the whole palace heard him—Joseph is controlling the situation, just as he has controlled the economic situation in Egypt, building up stores against the coming famine. Remember this is the brother’ second trip to buy grain from Egypt. The first time, Benjamin, now the favorite son, remained behind with Jacob. Joseph immediately knew his brothers, but they didn’t recognize him: he’d been a seventeen-year-old adolescent when they last saw him and now he is an Egyptian official. Joseph made a pretense of putting his brothers under guard for three days as potential spies, then, keeping Simeon in prison, he sent the others back to Jacob with instructions to return with their youngest brother as proof of their truthfulness.
But remember, Joseph has overheard them acknowledging among themselves (in Hebrew, which they assumed he could not speak) that their misfortune is retribution for not heeding Joseph’s pleas when they threw him into the pit. And on their way home, what do they find but that their money has been returned in their sacks of grain! Their response is, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Ma zot asah elohim lanu? [42:28]). They see God, involving himself unexpectedly in their lives.
Of course, they have to come back to buy more grain, and they finally persuade Jacob to let Benjamin go with them so that the entire family will not starve. Reuben, who had tried to save Joseph, extravagantly offers his own two sons as surety for Benjamin (would a grandfather slay his grandchildren?).
On this second visit, Joseph entertains them! gives them a meal in his own house! When he sees Benjamin (who may have been just a small child when Joseph was taken to Egypt) he was so moved he had to leave the room and weep, but he still does not reveal his identity. And again he tests the brothers, returning their money surreptiously but also hiding his divining cup in Benjamin’s sack. He sends them away only to have them ‘captured’ and brought back. Is it a duplication in the narrative, or is it like a cat playing with a mouse, building the tension before the denouement?
Listen to what Judah says to Joseph when they are brought back. “What can we say?... God has found out your servants’ crime!” [44:16]. He is not referring to stealing the money or the cup, which he knows they did not do; he is speaking of their conduct toward Joseph their brother. Their guilt has not left them.
Judah then makes an impassioned plea for Benjamin for Jacob’s sake, for Jacob’s “soul is bound up with the lad’s soul” (“v’nafsho k’shurah v’nafsho”—the same expression describes the love of David and Jonathan [I Sam. 18:1])—and if Benjamin does not return, Jacob will die.
The ten guilty brothers, through Judah their spokesman, have come to the point where they can acknowledge without jealousy the special love of their father for one son—the very thing they could not tolerate about Joseph. And brought to this point by Joseph’s actions, they admit their guilt before an ostensible stranger, displaying a love for their father that could not possibly allow them this time to bring a bloody coat to him and tell him his child must be dead. Now they are ready to be confronted by Joseph himself.
And finally, Joseph sends away all the courtiers and retainers, and weeps aloud, so that others hear him, and says “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph.”
The psychological insight of the author continues in Joseph’s words to them. First he abruptly reveals who he is and asks after his father (at their previous meeting he asked after their father). Then he names their crime against him: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Recall that he has acknowledged that he was kidnapped and sold by the Ishmaelites, but the brothers bear the guilt—they had plotted against him, and it is not their fault somebody beat them to it. In their hearts they sold him.
Then Joseph says, “Do not be pained [other translators offer “grieved” or “distressed”], and do not let anger rage in your eyes [others: “be not angry with yourselves” or “do not reproach yourselves”], that you sold me here!” He understands their psychological state: admission of guilt, confusion, grief and repentance, anger at one’s self, and so on. He’s got them where he wants them. We might say he’s had his revenge.
But then after all this, after he has manipulated them, if you will, to see their sin, and confused or frightened them by revealing his identity simply as “ani Yosef,” he says, “Don’t feel bad, BECAUSE GOD BROUGHT ME HERE before you to save life” (ki l’mikhyeh sh’lakhani elohim lifneykhem). How many times have we heard someone say “It was God’s will”—usually referring to a death, perhaps untimely. Or “it’s all for the best.” We want to find some meaning in what appears to us to be senseless. We want to find a reason why there is suffering and cruelty and evil in the world. Why does a merciful God allow it?
But we are also taught that the end does not justify the means. If the brothers should not be sorry that they sold their brother into slavery because it was part of God’s purpose, does that mean they have no responsibility for the terrible deeds of doing away with their brother and presenting their father with his bloodied coat? Think of the pain they caused Jacob, as he imagined his beloved son so mauled and torn by a wild beast—perhaps a hyaena—that only a piece of his clothing remained. And what about Joseph? If he’d had therapy, what feelings he must have expressed against his brothers! Or was he from childhood such a believer in his dreams and in the providence of God that he comforted himself with the idea that all his suffering was a part of God’s plan.
I find it hard to believe that the same man who could so manipulate his brothers, bringing them more than once to humble themselves before him, as in his youthful dreams, seeming to be driven to test them in this way despite his overwhelming emotions (or perhaps because of them—we are not told precisely WHY he wept, after all), —that this man could sincerely say, after all that, “But don’t grieve over what you did to me, because God brought me here to save life.”
Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers would seem to have a fairytale quality, like Cinderella forgiving her wicked stepsisters and stepmother when she marries the prince: a triumph of goodness. I think that in this story, bringing together the two viewpoints of the narrators, the editor attempts to reconcile the idea that God interferes in human life for God’s own purposes with the notion of human responsibility, of the need for repentance and some sort of retribution. Joseph sees God’s purpose as “saving life,” a purpose that Torah teaches us is a primary principle of moral behavior. And not only did Joseph save his family’s lives, but also the lives of the Egyptians. (That the Egyptians ultimately sell themselves to Pharaoh for food is a darker ending to the story.) Surely a divinely-approved purpose.
A new play has recently opened in New York, “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” by Paul Rudnick. It is a “what if” retelling of the biblical stories and a commentary on contemporary religion. In an interview with the NY Times Rudnick said that one of his goals was “to imagine the events of the Bible without the absolute presence of God. What if the earliest humans experienced all the floods, Pharaohs, and seeming miracles of the traditional tales, but without knowing for sure what, if anything, might be causing the hubbub?”
Well, I think it likely that many of the people who experienced these things didn’t immediately think, Ah! God is doing this. It is only later, after reflection, that the human mind begins to put together the “miracles,” the unexpected fragments of events, good and bad, into some meaningful pattern. Perhaps Joseph was working this out for himself through his whole life in Egypt and through his dealings with his brothers over the time covered by their two trips to Egypt to buy food. Perhaps the authors and editor of the Joseph narrative in Genesis were working out the same contradictions: bad things were done; good things happened as a result. If the brothers hadn’t sold Joseph to Egypt, would Jacob’s family later have starved in the famine and the Jewish people not exist? What if, what if... Joseph was able to deal with the grief and pain in his life because he believed there was a purpose to it, and that sense of purpose was grounded in God.