Joseph and his family are reunited
By Morty Breier
December 26, 1998
First let me say something about doing the “drash.” Barry is always helpful in this regard. He emailed me a four page document from a website that gives interpretations of this weeks Torah portion. These are always interesting to read. However, it is my belief that one of the unique features of Judaism is that each Jew faces his or her God directly, with no intermediary. I like this. I take it seriously. Somehow, if I’m asked to do a drash than there is something about this unique moment, about me, the torah portion, the congregation, the place and the time that makes my unique reading important. So I read the appropriate chapters in my translation, a relatively new one, of the Five Books of Moses, by Everett Fox, and I wrote what I, your friend and fellow spiritual journeyer, got from this reading. The following then, is the intersection of my life’s wisdom with the Torah’s wisdom at this time of our journey together. It is a real time drama. And you’ll see, if you bear with me, how the resulting interpretation empowers this choice.
What strikes me while reading this, or in fact any, portion of the Torah is its amazing mixture of cinema verite, reality in all its nitty gritty greytones, with the lofty presence of a deity who mixes in. This Torah that we are to read every Shabbos is a seemly tale about a mixed bag of characters who exhibit the entire gamut of human strength and frailty, virtue and vice, truthfulness and deception, selflessness and greed. In this story of Jacob, Joseph, his brothers and the Egyptians, we see the real world, not prettied up or delicately toned, not made acceptably “good” or “proper” but presented as is, with betrayal, false accusations, conspiracy, plotting, cunning, deception and fear mixed with loyalty, honesty, skill, intelligence, compassion and love.
It’s almost as if this way of taking in reality were precisely the lesson. It’s as though much of consciousness is mistakenly concerned with making nice but should be concerned with making real. I mean you could say that Joseph came to power because he read Pharaoh’s dream. Or maybe, more to the point, because he refused to make nice to Pharaoh and instead told it like he saw it, right on, without blinking, without kow-towing. His brothers, less central to the story-line, support actors as it were, do a lot more obeisance, trying not to upset the powers that be. While Jacob and Joseph, through which the story-line plays out, the ones that Hashem sees worthy of re-assuring, act strongly, realistically out of a personal real life assessment of what’s really going on about them.
As heirs to the Old Testament we Jews are encouraged in that direction. Our contributions to humanity’s story-line have often involved seeing past appearances to the real or essential nature of what it is we are looking at. We pride ourselves in this ability to realistically assess the passing scene. The Torah seems to demand this of us. Not so much by what it says as how it tells it. We are not to gloss over things. We are not to pretend all is fine. We are not to treat life like a fairy tale, with just good guys and bad guys… where the bad guys get their come-uppance and the good guys live happily ever after. No. It is much more complex than that… many more gray tones, the gold and black threads more intermixed.
Serving us well, this eye for truth also has its drawbacks. Emperors, those in power, have always used us for the talents attendant to such sight, while at the same time fearing that this eye of reality would be turned on them, seeing through their finery to their nakedness beneath. Part of our being a thorn in the side of power is that we refused to believe it was God given, refuse to believe that a gilded scepter meant wisdom reigns, that pomp and ceremony denotes spiritual grandeur.
Sometimes this seeing eye grows hard, encrusted with cynicism, full of judgment and devoid of mercy, devoid of compassion and love. The Nazareneh Rabbi, Reb Jesus, whose birthday was just celebrated by a large portion of humanity, saw this potential fault and preached mightily against it. The world we live in today, our own cultural and ethical worldviews are the result of these strands of our combined history. We, the Jews of today, are, whether we admit it or not, as much a product of this Rabbi’s preaching as any other citizen of the western world and its developing civilization. We Jews have also obviously given up an eye for an eye, much as our detractors claim otherwise. We no longer stone adulterers. We would not today make a pact that involves killing our children as one of Joseph’s brothers did when promising Jacob he would return with Benjamin. We also have learned to turn the other cheek when love and mercy so demand. We are also part of the human learning experience.
And we Jews are not without our own fairy tales, much as the Torah, by its own telling, admonishes against it. We subsume the realness of the history being told, the in-your-face drama of faulty characters playing out problematic lives, the history, I dare say, of each of the journeys of our own lifetime, in a kind of universal reading, a one size fits all take on how we are to use this telling. This means we are not to do this. That means we are to do that. And if we all act appropriately, in accordance with these commandments or mitzvot, we will herald in Mashiach. And he will fix everything.
But the fix is in the doing and the doing is unique to the instance and he who sees this truth and who acts accordingly succeeds with Hashem’s blessings. This, in my reading, is the essential message in the story of Joseph. The moment seems to have its own truth and to see this truth in all its complexity is to be closer to Hashem. This is the Torah’s point. That’s why the dramas unfold in all their complexity. The point is exactly that we are not to simplify it or reduce it to a rule, or, even stranger yet, to be more interested in that story, the Torah history, than in the reality that surrounds you, your own history, this story unfolding for you in this moment. This, the here and now, this lifetime, this community, this day, this moment is the schoolroom of my reality. It is right now, now, now that my relation to Hashem is being developed, just as it was Joseph’s own reading of the now, now, now that produced the drama of his successes and the blessings of Hashem.
And our now is this moment. My now is this reading. I am here to do this. To do it with all the verve, wisdom, chutzpah, and audacity I can muster. It’s only by looking it square in the face, by claiming it as a unique lesson for me to learn right now, this morning, this Salvation Army Chapel, this Shabbos morning service, this day after Christmas, this bridge to the new millennium, you, the olem, my Kona Beth Shalom community, on an island in the Pacific, that is the ultimate test of how close I am to Hashem. This very reality, this real-time complexity is the Torah’s message. That is what moved Joseph closer to Hashem and this is what might also move me closer.