COMMENTARY ON THE LIFE OF JOSEPH
By Morty Breier
December 28, 1996
What a story the Old Testament, the Tanach, is. An historic unfolding of biblical proportion. I mean what other narrative dares to take place over thousands of years. And comes to us from thousands of years ago. Half the world takes this narrative as the original chapters of their own holy work, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. An intricately involved chronical of an ancient people, a rich spectrum of characters, gutsy, what we would call chutzpadic, full of life, love, intrigue, passionate and adventurous, a people on speaking terms with God. And we claim to be their offspring. We Jews sitting in this room. Jacob was one of our antecedents, Joseph brother to one of our ultra-great grandparents. Are we to then assume that these qualities adhere to us. Are we, as a humorist said, the same as everyone else, only more so? Are each of us, then, on better speaking terms with God then any of our neighbors?
Take Joseph… what a character! Every time he falls he rises higher then ever before. He is most beloved in his household and because of it gets thrown by his brethren into a pit. Because he is in the pit he is discovered by traveling merchants and taken to the distant land of Egypt. There he prospers as a servant only to be thrown into a dungeon by s false accusation by his master’s wife. And because he is in a dungeon he encounters the royal baker, producing a linkage to the Pharaoh that never otherwise could have occurred, that then leads to an opportunity. And because he has no other attachments in that distant land, he uses the opportunity to ascend to leadership over all Egypt. And because he led Egypt his brethren were reunited with him and he not only fulfilled his father Jacob’s wishes, but himself lived 110 years, dying in great wisdom and dignity, given the honors that a full, adventurous life deserves. It was as though each of his falls was cause to each rise, or is it his rise to fall. Isn’t this successions of falls and rises Joseph’s great lesson to us?
From my perspective it is. I feel that Joseph lives in me in proportion to the magnitude of my own failures and successes, the greatness of one determining the extent of the other. My own life gives truth to the old adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. How else to try to be on speaking terms with God then by sallying forth boldly, many times falling on my face, in this world He presented to me? When I look back over my life, it seems that whenever I crashed, whenever I fell into the pit, whenever I found myself imprisoned by circumstance, whenever my world collapsed around me, I was being asked by Hashem to re-create it, to start from ground zero once again and redefine my circumstance, to climb out of the pit into a new, higher, broader landscape. The more severe the crash, the emptier my shattered container, the grander, the more fullness my re-creation achieved. The fuller my world the bolder my next adventure, pushing my envelope that much further, learning, mastering my new world, then crashing once again so that I might re-create it fuller still.
It is that tenacity that marks us as Jews. We refuse to admit defeat. Now that’s easy to do if you take no risks. But we take risks. We are asked not to take the easy way out. In order to be on speaking terms with God we are asked to be Godlike ourselves. This requires that we extend ourselves, since much of God is always beyond our reach. It is this extension, this willingness to perform outside his envelope, this spirit capable of being what the next adventure asked of him, of letting go of a previous degradation, is what characterizes Joseph. He barely looks back. He is always too busy with his new circumstance. He holds no grudges because each betrayal leads him eventually to a higher place. Why should he resent the initiator?
I believe God lies in front of us and not behind us. I believe we make our way toward Hashem by the ever increasing breadth and depth of our experiences. I believe the more we adventure forth the more we experience and the more we experience the broader our worldview, and the broader our worldview the more inclusive our world, and the more inclusive our world the more meaningful our connection to God. It seems to me that God is super inclusive, since the entire universe is within Him/Her. It seems to me that I am a spark of God, burning dimly when I am exclusive, narrow, self-centered. and burning brightly when my light brightens everything I am presented with. It seems to me that to talk with God, I have to push myself up toward the Creator’s level, to take the highest, longest, most loving view I can. It’s then that my thoughts and actions are like conversations with God. Its then I can realize my indebtedness to my ancestors, to Jacob and Joseph. Its then that I can make some claim to the title of Jew as a unique instrument of Hashem. I also realize its at those exultant times that any of God’s children can claim to be God’s unique instrument. I also realize that I have no right to make such claim by birth alone, by being born a Jew. I, like any of God’s children, must strive to fill my life with Hashem’s entire creation to be, like Joseph, worthy of any intimacy with that most inclusive of all presences.
I hope that each of us, and we as a congregation, use Joseph as our traveling companion, heeding his message of adventure and its attendant crashes, spectacular recovery, forward facing attention and striving toward more inclusive skills and understandings. To me getting closer to God lies in that direction.