Vayakesh, B'reishit (Genesis) 37:23-36
23 Kislev 5755 - November 25, 1994
When I studied the story of Joseph, one of my first reactions of him was Gee, what a modern guy!. Then I thought, how can someone who lived almost four thousand years ago appear modern? I realized that I saw Joseph as modern because he represented what many Jews face in our contemporary world. I define contemporary as the last couple of centuries or so when the so-called emancipation of Jews took place in Western Europe and North America.
Joseph had a lot of the qualities of a modern guy. Modern times call for people to toot their own horn. Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were mildmannered and self-effacing; Joseph was not. He was full of himself, a pampered brat, a snitch, a fashion plate, an ancient version of the newly minted MBA from Harvard ready to land that first bond trader job on Wall Street. Joseph abruptly described his dreams, never tempering his vision or apologizing for upsetting his family. His incisive insight did him well in corporate Egypt with Pharaoh and company. But it destroyed his domestic relations, with justification it turns out, as he explains later to family, friends and acquaintances, because he knew God willed it.
In traditional times, a person would patiently wait until his or her seniority was eventually rewarded with authority, respect and power. Not Joseph. His God-given talent of perception and strategic thinking hurled him into Egypt as a teenager, and propelled him to the functional leadership of Egypt while still a young man. He did far better than his herdsmen brothers. He outdid that mythical bond trader and parlayed the traditional Jewish lodestone for those professional types that do not go into medicine or law, namely government work, into being the top mensch.
Those are the surface reasons why I thought Joseph was the first modern Jew. The deeper reasons were his apparent distance from God, and his struggle , the first major Biblical struggle, against assimilation.
Joseph did not have one direct communication with God in Torah. Noah had, Abraham had, so had Isaac and Jacob. Not Joseph. His was the first patriarchal connection that was not actually stated. It is stated in B'reishit, in Genesis, that " God (Adonai) was with Joseph", and Joseph often cited Adonai as the source of his wisdom. But he and Adonai did not directly connect, p'nei I'p'nei, or face-to-face, like Moses did later on.
There's another instance in this remoteness issue, one that I will go into some detail. Joseph's lineage was not explicitly stated in the portion of B'reishit that describes his birth. Chapter 30 relates how Jacob is flung about by his wives and their nurses. It was stated that Jacob mated with Bilhah, Rachel's maid, with Zilpah, Leah's maid, then with Leah herself. After this parade of procreation, almost as an afterthought, chapter 30, verse 22 starts out Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb. The next verse said She conceived and bore a son, who was named Joseph. It was not written that Jacob mated with Rachel. And this was Elohim, the God who watches over us, not the Adonai of the Covenant. Earlier in the chapter, Jacob argued with Rachel over her barrenness saying Can I take the place of God (Elohim) who has denied you fruit of the womb?
Of course, we believe Jacob was the father, but it is not actually stated there. He is described later as being the son most protected by Jacob, along with his beloved Rachel, in the encounter with Esau. This presages Joseph becoming God's favorite later on. Joseph is mentioned later in Jacob's testament, most prominently at the end of B'reishit, and elsewhere in Torah as one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph fulfills the dutiful son's role of laying his father to rest. Midrash and other commentary speak volumes of Joseph, his lineage and conversations with God, but there's no direct mention of it in that part of Torah.
Lastly, Joseph maintains his Jewish identity. Despite being immersed in a powerful and seductive society from the time of impressionable youth to old age, except for the one journey to bury his father, he did not assimilate. Joseph received an Egyptian name, took an Egyptian wife, and diligently worked, rescuing a mighty nation from economic ruin. But his work, and his life there, was just his day job. In that, he did not fall victim to assimilation that swallow too many modern Jews. He knew that his long life in Egypt was just a sojourn. Despite no direct communication with Adonai, the elderly Joseph told his descendants that God will care for and bring him, and them, back home.
Home may, or may not, physically be Eretz Yisrael for us, but certainly we need to be aware, as Joseph did without being directly told by Adonai, that we will be taken care of, and brought back home. Amen.