Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This is very embarrassing.  When I read the stories of Joseph, I often find myself thinking about what a jerk he is.  I mean it's bad enough that their father so clearly favors him, why must he broadcast the contents of his dreams?  Does he want his brothers to know that God favors him, too?   It really seems that he could use a Dale Carnegie course.  Of course, my problem is that although I feel this way, the text and our Sages report his greatness and success in both the short and long term.  He is the dubbed the Zadik and numbered among the few who never sinned.  Perhaps my biggest problem is that everyone is so taken with his charm.  Where's that charming character when gleefully rubbing his brothers' faces in his choseness?  I think that there's a relatively simple solution to this conundrum.  He grew up.

            The seventeen year old Joseph of chapter thirty-seven is not the same young man as the Joseph of chapter thirty-nine, who is enslaved in Egypt.  The flow of the Biblical narrative is interrupted by chapter thirty eight with a story about Yehuda and his tribulations.  When the curtain rises on Joseph's new status in Egypt, I think that we have Joseph 2.0.  He's lost his edge and his arrogance.  His haughty self assurance has been surgically removed by life's vicissitudes.  The Midrash records that he was sold a number of times before his arrival at the house of Potiphar.  Maybe that means that he went through a number of stages of personality development.  The new Joseph has charm and grace to go along with his other talents.  Only then does the text record that he finds favor in everyone's eyes (Genesis 39:4).  And it's only two verses later that we're told for the first time that he's good looking.  The charm is noticed before the handsome features, and neither was perceived until he got to Egypt.

            But I think that the first hint of a new Joseph is found in last week's Torah reading.  When the famine started to affect Israel, the verse reports that Ya'akov saw that there was grain for sale in Egypt, but in the very next verse Ya'akov said to the brothers that he heard that there was grain in Egypt.  The great commentary, Rashi, is also concerned about how Ya'akov saw that there were provisions in Egypt, and observes:  Is it not true that he did not see it, only that he heard of it? What then is the meaning of "saw"? He saw with the divine "mirror" that he still had hope in Egypt, but it was not a real prophecy to explicitly inform him that this was Joseph (42:1).  In other words, Ya'akov had some Divinely inspired information, but it was short of full prophecy, because he didn't discern the presence of Joseph.  The Rav, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, observed that the term see usually applies to discovering something surprising.  What was surprising?  Well, two things.  First, the food in Egypt was being rationed to prevent hoarding and inflation.  And, secondly, the provisions were being sold to foreigners suffering from the famine.  These two examples of moral benevolence confused and amazed Ya'akov.  His awareness that something special and surprising was happening in Egypt prompted the use of the term seeing instead of hearing.  But, of course, this wonder was a mere shadow of the bigger shocker on the way.

            This new kinder, gentler Joseph seems to have disappeared the moment the brothers appear before him.  Instead of warmly greeting them he feigns ignorance of their identity.  But this is also a new phenomenon for Joseph.  The young Joseph was totally incapable of holding back from revealing everything on his mind.  Whether it was the behavior of his brothers or the content of disturbing dreams, the youthful Joseph seems to not have any unspoken thoughts.  This new Joseph plays his cards close to his vest.

            We get another view of Joseph's newfound knack for introspection in the scene when the brothers are ushered into his presence:  And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he made himself a stranger to them, and he spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, "Where do you come from?" And they said, "From the land of Canaan to purchase food." Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (42:7-8).  Why does verse eight just repeat what we just read in verse seven?  The Rav explains the repetition of Joseph's recognition of the brothers as a declaration that Joseph was ready to see the brothers in a new light.  The recognition was that they were not the same brothers who bullied and tortured him as a lad.  If he had only identified his siblings, there would have been no room for either reconciliation or future cooperation between them or their offspring.  But the new Joseph looked at them again and saw a chastened group, softened by life's tribulations, and, perhaps, by their father's continued grief for the absent Joseph.  Only after this second look could he come to think verse nine:  And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them.  There's still a chance that the dreams might come to fruition.

            Now, we're ready to fully understand the scene at the beginning of this week's parsha:  Joseph could not bear all those non-family members standing beside him, and he called out, "Take everyone away from me!"  Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud (45:1-2).  Joseph's sentiments are genuine; he has evolved.  But what about the brothers?  They couldn't respond because they were dumbfounded.  The Hebrew word is niv'halu, and could be translated as perplexed, confused or terrified.  They never believe Joseph's reform until the death of Ya'akov when they plead for their lives.

            Joseph has morphed into a mature leader.  The brothers have difficulty accepting it, and we can't blame them because the danger is real.  But maybe we should learn to have more faith in the power of growth and development.  From this story, I believe that we can learn the power of change, but perhaps even more importantly we must learn to accept the changes in others.              

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