This week’s parasha contains a remarkable story. Yosef, our hero, is sitting in a dark, depressing prison. The Pharaoh has a dream and no one can interpret it. The cupbearer from the previous parasha remembers Yosef and recommends him to Pharaoh. Yosef interprets the dream correctly and Pharaoh appoints him prime minister over all of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh.
This rise from the dungeon to the palace is remarkable for several reasons. First, Yosef is a foreigner. It seems almost impossible to believe that Pharaoh would willingly put so much power in the hands of a man who was not an Egyptian, not even of royal blood, after knowing him just a few days or hours. Second, the two most recent items on Yosef’s resume were slave and convict. A janitor with a sexual assault record would not be the corporate president’s pick for a CEO.
There must have been something about Yosef that impressed the Pharaoh enough to make such a choice. This raises two questions. What was that something and was it unique to Yosef or can we emulate these qualities or characteristics. Yosef had gone through a long, hard maturing process while in Egypt. In his father’s house, he was spoiled and a bit arrogant and the dreams he had filled him with a distorted sense of self importance. Now, as he stands before Pharaoh, he takes no credit whatsoever for any wisdom or interpretation that that he may impart to Pharaoh. He was merely a conduit for G-d’s message to Pharaoh and it was only G-d’s grace that placed him in that role. He was completely honest about it, and selfless in his further advice to Pharaoh.
Yosef had developed anavah, humility, or selflessness. He had let go of all the trappings of ego, or self importance, of desire or expectations. When he stood before Pharaoh, he had no idea what was coming. He could have been returned the the prison after the meeting. But he did not try to manipulate Pharaoh or make himself important. He concentrated on the moment and did his duty, he fulfilled the mission which G-d had called him to at that time with no thought of himself. Yahushua said that those who develop this characteristic, humility, an acute awareness of one’s place in the world and with G-d, would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because these are the people G-d can really use in this world.
So why did Pharaoh take this one character trait and use it as a reason to promote Yosef to the second highest position in the land. He was exercising a trait we all should develop in our interactions with people. Pharaoh had taken this positive characteristic of Yosef and concentrated on that rather than the negatives of his resume. When we look at other people, we too should concentrate on the strengths we see in them , to build them up, and not on their weaknesses of failings. Yahushua, our example, demonstrated both these characteristics. He knew Who He was, was completely honest and selfless and he always emphasized the good, the potential of people. We would have truly mature, loving and strong communities if we did the same.
In the early part of this century, before the Shoah, the Chafetz Chaim was one of the great leaders of European Jewry. He was once called into a Polish court to testify on behalf of a Jewish defendant. When the defense counsel called him up to the stand, he began telling the court about his righteousness, his character, his saintly deeds, even a miracle or two that had been attributed to him. The Judge was not impressed and the prosecution cast doubt on the accuracy of such testimony.
The defense counsel, seeing the doubt in the Judge’s face, admitted that there may be some exaggeration in the stories but then he asked court a very simple question. He said, “It may be that not every detail in the stories is true, but tell me, your honor, do people tell such stories about you and me?”
A lot of what happens in this week’s parasha centers on Yosef’s character and who it is that is vouching for him. First it was the chamberlain who told Pharaoh how Yosef had accurately interpreted his dreams and eventually it was Pharaoh himself who after spending such a short time with Yosef, listen to his words and observing his demeanor, made him second only to himself in Egypt. Yosef has something in his character and demeanor that put people at ease and demonstrated his trustworthiness to all those he met. He may have been young, he may have been a Hebrew foreigner but his integrity spoke for itself in Pharaoh’s court.
In religious debate, as in political debate or even discussions in the workplace or at home, there are two dynamics at work. They can work at opposition or in harmony. The first is the facts and opinions involved in the discussion itself. At Biet HaKodesh we have discussions around the table after services every week. We discuss the parasha, throw out various opinions, occasionally argue and even convince others of the opinions we hold. We agree to disagree and we remain brothers and sisters. We may find out our facts are wrong or our opinions don’t really make sense. Because we all acknowledge this, we cannot be dogmatic about most of them.
The second dynamic is the person who is presenting the opinion. When someone opens their mouth, we not only listen to what they are saying but we decide how much weight to give it based on their character and integrity. When Bill Clinton says something, we couple a history of lying with a lack of moral integrity and put very little stock in his statement’s accuracy or trustworthiness. When someone who we know as a person of integrity and character says something, someone who has demonstrated wisdom in the past, we accord a lot of weight to their words.
The question we need to ask ourselves is how people view us. To do this we need to put aside whether people agree with us or not, we can always argue about ideas. What we need to focus on is whether or not people see us as individuals of honesty and integrity, if we have shown ourselves wise and trustworthy, if when people talk about us they tell stories about our service and the blessing we have been to others. When people say things like that about us, then we know we have truly achieved something unique.
The person of Yosef is intriguing for many reasons and he has a lot to teach us. Much has been made of the parallels between Yosef and Y’shua and for good reason. The story of Yosef’s personal slavery and redemption is one we can all relate to as we hope for our redemption at any moment. More than all that, however, is Yosef’s character, his person and the process of growth we have seen in these two parashot.
Last week we saw him fall from a high position as ‘daddy’s favorite’ to slave to prisoner. Yosef was a righteous man, there is no question about that in the story. When he reported on his brothers, he told the truth, perhaps a little two bluntly. He was blessed with spiritual intuitiveness early but he did not know how to handle it and it may have led to a little pride on his part. He resisted the advances of Potipher’s wife even after she persisted day after day and his righteous character was obvious to all and he became a trusted friend and servant of those he met.
Many of us are where Yosef was in his youth. We know the Torah, we are basically righteous, we may have experienced ‘spiritual gifts’ of some sort. We are seeking and relying on knowledge of history, of Hebrew, of scripture, to make us the people of God we know we should be. Yet we read the stories in the Bible and we know in our deepest being that there has to be something else, that there is more to our relationship with God than following torah, reciting prayers and being a good person.
Yosef, after thirteen years in slavery and as a prisoner, found that something. Moshe and David found it in the desert herding sheep. Avraham found it in his wanderings through the land. They found what it really meant to be a man and so they discovered true relationship with their Creator. They found what Adam had before the fall and so they found Adam and God’s intimacy. As Yosef stood before Pharaoh and Pharaoh related his dream and requested and interpretation, Yosef simply said, ‘That is beyond me, it is God who will respond..” Yosef himself was nothing, everything he had came from the Almighty. He had learned the lesson of true humility and in so doing had discovered wisdom and made himself an effective instrument of the Almighty.
How is such a thing accomplished? Y’shua gave us the answer. “Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Couple this statement with his teaching on the kingdom of God, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” We have sought the kingdom as if it is far off in time or space yet the truth is it is here all the time. We try to enter the kingdom through knowledge but the reality is, it was the pursuit of knowledge that got us kicked out in the first place! We have tried to fill our minds with facts and attempted to train our minds for righteousness but the reality is we have ignored the spirit within us that naturally partakes of the Creator’s essence.
When we were born we did not need to learn how to breath, to see, to hear. When we were children we were fully human and the possibilities were limitless. We had no fear, we were truly free. Then we were taught what we were supposed to be, how we were to act. We were told what our limits were even though those limits were completely fictitious. Now we define ourselves by our roles; father, child, occupation, income level, ancestry. Our minds which as children flowed freely like living water, have become hardened into ice. We find it had to break out of our roles, our assumptions, our preconceived ideas about ourselves, others, and God. We are all charter members of the ‘Flat Earth Society’ in the space age!
Our potential as beings created in the image of the Almighty is limitless. We have the ability to do or be anything if we stop worrying about doing or being anything. When we eliminate the ego, stop concerning ourselves with the ‘I’ then we can learn to be one with the Father as Y’shua was one. We will experience the ‘He’ in us as greater than anything in the world. We will flow in the spirit and with God as we were created to.
In this parasha we are caught up in the struggle for reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers. The story of the meetings, the deception by Yosef to test them, the brother’s powerlessness in the face of these bizarre circumstances and the final revelation in next week’s portion all make for an interesting story. There is a character that gets lost in all this, however, a character who is at the crux of it all, a character who is the catalyst for everything that happens.
The central player is Ya’akov himself. It is he who is responsible for everything that happens. And from that fact we can learn a very important lesson. The Torah of Moshe teaches us not to show favoritism to children, particularly of the younger over the older. Ya’akov ignored this practical application of the truth ‘love your neighbor as oneself’ within his family. This whole crisis, in fact the eventual slavery of his descendants in Egypt, can all be attributed to the gift of the coat of many colors to Yosef. This one act, which hardened his brothers against Ya’akov’s favorite son, was the spark that lit the fuse leading Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. It all comes back to Ya’akov who, after being on the short end of the favoritism stick with his father, should have known better.
The teshuvah of Yosef was accomplished in the previous parasha. We have seen him adjust his character so he is now the trusted ruler of Egypt next to the Pharaoh himself. This week we see the brothers realize their own sin and go through their own repentance. They realize that the strange turn of events; being accused spies, Simeon’s imprisonment, the money in the sacks, the requirement of Benyamin’s presence, they are all the result of their previous wickedness. They have made the connection. After repentance, reconciliation begins. The question now arises, does Ya’akov himself ever go through this process?
If so, it is not as obvious. He certainly suffers on account of his foolishness. Yosef is taken, as are Yehudah and Simeon for a time. His beloved Benyamin is then taken to an uncertain fate. The fact that Benyamin has replaced Yosef in his affections demonstrates that he had not yet learned his lesson which is probably why he must be put at a risk for loss as well. Ya’akov, at this point, has not learned the most important lesson of the story, in fact one of the most important lessons of a successful, God directed life. He has not learned to set aside his appetites. Instead he has let them rule his life. His desire to supplant his brother as head of the clan (an appetite for power and/or prestige) resulted in his removal from the family for 20 years. His desire for Rachael (the lust of the eyes) put him under Lavan’s thumb for 14 years and his desire for wealth kept him there another seven. His overwhelming affection for Rachael led to his favoritism of Yosef and later, Benyamin. This favoritism led to Yosef’s demise and his affection for Benyamin put the clan at risk because he refused to send him down knowing that it was a condition for their purchase of food.
There is an interesting pattern here. Everything he desired was taken from him. He lost Rachael, his sons took his reputation from him among the peoples of the land with the Shechem incident, he had several of his sons taken including his two favorites and because of his stubbornness, he was brought to near starvation (no wealth). Nothing in this life is permanent. Loss is just as much a part of life as gain, they are just two sides to the same coin. It is when we become inappropriately attached to transient things we get ourselves in trouble. We are to love our wives and children, we can enjoy wealth when it comes but we cannot let obsession with such things distort our reality. We cannot let our fear of their loss keep us from doing the right things. Ya’akov was a man who did so and nearly lost everything. His descendants paid for it dearly. Let us make wise life decisions not based on our appetites and disproportionate affections but on truth and objective reality.