Joseph comes to power under the Pharaoh
By Morty Breier
June 16, 1998
From chapter 38 which begins with “And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren”….to chapter 50 which ends with “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” the remarkable story of Joseph unfolds. At the beginning of this story Joseph is betrayed by his brothers out of jealousy of their father’s favoring him, abducted and sold into slavery, subsequently becoming his Egyptian master’s right-hand man, and then once again betrayed and plunged into darkness. There also occurs on these pages the side story of Judah and Tamar.
This week we study Chapters 41 through 44 which takes us from Joseph’s two year imprisonment, having been wrongfully accused of lustful advances by his boss’s frustrated wife, to his playing psychodrama with his brothers from a position of penultimate Egyptian power. We are taken through Joseph’s appointment to power at the age of 30, by way of his insightful revelation of the meaning of the Pharaoh’s dreams, his masterful governing of the Pharaoh’s realm during the 14 year dream sequence becoming reality, and the destined reappearance of his needy brethren whose original wrongful acts started the whole drama in motion. The subsequent chapters see Joseph tearfully reunited with his brothers and his father Jacob.
Now that is the story’s outline which the actual biblical text amplifies somewhat, but not much, representing about an hours worth of reading. But, indeed, if this text is given to us by God, there must be a lifetime’s worth of information in every jot and tittle, and it is for us, with the help of wise Jews that preceded us, to investigate, analyze, argue about, apply and interpret this information on as many levels as is given to us to see. Since I, Morty, a Jew, am at the podium, with, I might add a limited if unchallenged length of time, it will be my interpretation that you are subject to.
To begin with, I must say I do not hold to God’s authorship of the bible, except in that wherever human wisdom is tapped at its essential source, there God makes manifest his scheme of things, and I count the old testament as a strangely enigmatic tapping of such wisdom. Perhaps Hashem, our Jewish revelation of God is intentionally obscure, requiring Jews from the beginning to twist and turn their “grubber finger”, their fat finger, in increasingly didactic exercises of logic, thereby honoring and rewarding smartness in their long history of service to mankind. Joseph made his mark on Egypt through his smartness and we are making our mark on America and thereby on the world today through our smartness. It can perhaps be said that the development of such smartness was directly proportional to the obscurity and enigmaticness of the book we have chosen to study.
In trying to obtain a message from what looks like a tribal narrative, it seems that our sages have always asked of Hashem’s words the questions “What is holiness? who is a Tzaddic?” and in following the narrative we discover Hashem’s evaluations in this regard. In the story of Joseph, we are asked to find how Hashem evaluates the holiness of Joseph’s spiritual states by examining the consequences that Hashem meters out to each of Joseph’s actions. By such a method might each of us understand where the true sanctity of a Tzaddic lies and, by inference, where our own sanctity lies. For instance, our sages found Joseph at fault when he asked the Pharaoh’s butler twice to remember/mention him to Pharaoh instead of trusting in the bounty and love of Hashem to deliver him from his captors, witness Hashem’s causing him to languish in jail for two years. On the other hand, our sages praise Joseph’s selfless channeling of his dream interpretation, ascribing the wisdom to God, for which Hashem meters out the reward of his ascension to power. In fact Joseph’s recurring successes testify to his holiness, and time and again his handling of difficulties, his reversal of fortunes and his ability to forgive, let go and get on with his growth and development act as signposts to his faith and reliance on Hashem and, in effect, our own learning to trust in the benevolence of God and in His plan for each of our unfoldings. It seams to me that through this reasoning, this following of biblical queues, we zero in on the mystical concept of egolessness, of that state of grace in which God and His creation are united in both vision and intent such that the ego character Morty or Joseph becomes incidental to this Godly equation.
Of course Jews do not make it easy, otherwise they would not be Jews, and what one sage interprets as Hashem’s goodness and therefore indicative of our ancestor’s holiness another interprets as difficulty indicative of his missing the holiness mark. These differences maintain, perhaps, a strong defense against arrogance, especially the arrogance of believing anyone has the last word on what Hashem means to tell us. In fact the entire story is an unfoldment, each page revealing a reversal that undermines previously quick made judgments, lending credence to the fact of the unfolding story line of each of us as individuals and of man himself. Once down, we rise up again, defying the doomsday advocates and their negative admonitions. We move, our sages say from baseness to holiness, especially we Jews, it is our role to play, to lead the world, so that it might do the same, as Joseph did in each situation he was thrown into. By his willingness to go along with Hashem’s plans from moment to moment, from day to day, from year to year Joseph changed from being in the pit in Canaan to being his master’s right-hand man, from being in the Pharaoh’s dungeon to being second in command of Egypt, from being a disowned stranger in a strange land to raising his reunited family to riches and honors. I recently heard a beautiful statement from Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi: ” we must learn to collaborate with the inevitable.” or put another way “The fates lead he who will, he who wont they drag” May we learn these lessons well.
This aspect of the changes inherent in an unfolding story line also underlines the dual nature of our universe. The story itself, as in fact is true of all drama, requires an understanding of conflict, of the play of forces and their resolution, which in turn yields additional conflict and resolution. Our sages say that at the fundamental level this conflict is between the basic forces at work in Joseph’s development, and, in fact in every Jew’s life: physical vs. metaphysical; natural vs. supernatural; secular vs. sacred. It is on this game board that the biblical themes are displayed as “the lives of the patriarchs vs. Hashem’s spiritual meanings.” In the story of Joseph we find this duality in the reality vs. dreams sequences, in the trust the world vs. trust Hashem themes, in the principal of goodness being proportional to effort. Not that we return each time to the same place, but, like Joseph, our patriarch, we, with each subsequent conflict resolution raise ourselves, relying more and more on Hashem’s blessings, to higher and higher places.
I believe that the story indicates that Hashem in blessing Joseph with movement and growth through holiness also blesses the world with movement and growth through holiness. I believe that each of our lives is an unfolding story line of growth and holiness, making life itself an unfolding story line of growth and holiness or, as our sages say “the realm of the holy is strengthened and the realm of the purely secular declines.” If indeed Hashem’s vector is positive than man’s worldviews change for the better as time passes, and new interpretations of His meanings are not only welcomed but are indeed necessary in order to confirm His reigning transformation demands on us and our universe: Change! Grow! Immerse yourself more and more in spirit!