Joseph inspires to make a difference

by | Jan 16, 2017 | Torah Thought

The great and most colorful Joseph saga extends over four Torah portions and 13 chapters.

Just like Joseph, the dreamer and interpreter of incredible dreams (he should have kept some of them to himself!), the Jewish people have believed that noble, as well as disturbing dreams have the potential and power to transform reality. In the way Joseph was not accepted by his own immature and treacherous kin, begrudging him his unique spirit and grandiose ideas of a dreamy youngster whose father’s favoritism put him at risk, we have felt isolated throughout much of history.

We have been rejected for insisting on living our own authentic lives as a minority, yet willing to stand up to the majority if necessary. Our faithfulness to the dictates of our faith and conscience has been interpreted as a negative reflection of aloofness rather than one of a proud choice. Joseph, through his mind’s genius and heart’s compassion, was able to save both his adopted empire of Egypt and his family from small Canaan. In the process, he taught that borders and feelings need not be obstacles to a constructive response to the urgent demands of life and death.

Joseph managed to transcend his personal insecurities and apprehensions to accomplish the larger and lasting goals of putting his talents to the beneficial use of society, rather than dwelling on past hurts and injustices that could have crippled him and others. Thus he wisely chose the high road allowing him to become a great Egyptian, while earning his status as a great Hebrew brother and leader, whose early self-centered dreams turned into a blessed reality for all concerned through maturity of character wrought by trials and tribulations.

The ultimate challenge of this mighty ruler, second only to Pharaoh, was to conquer and control his own raging passions, which he proved with tempting and aggressive Mrs. Potiphar, earning him the rabbis’ honorific appellation “Hatzadik” (The saintly one). He repeated his self-control with his brothers at the pinnacle of his brilliant career with so much at stake for himself and for them. What a moving moment of victory when Joseph can no longer hold back his tears and eagerly desires to reveal his true identity to his overwhelmed brothers, not quite realizing that they would never recover from the shock of the encounter and/or from the guilt that would continue to burden them.

Perhaps Joseph’s favorable decision to reach out to them was ultimately prompted by Judah’s display of sincere love for brother Benjamin, as well as for father Jacob’s well-being. Upon reconnecting to his family, he rejoined his roots and was thus ennobled and made whole. Joseph could have abandoned his Hebrew background, protecting his painfully acquired identity and status, but he knew that his remarkable life’s success had to carry a humbling message of healing and gratitude.

Joseph appeals to us in his touching humaneness, which is not lost when he becomes powerful and his survivor’s skills of ascending from the pit to the palace inspire us, realizing that it reflects the historic Jewish challenge to survive and even thrive in a harsh reality. He is the prototype model of the modern Jew, enlightening us about living in two worlds. He was able to perceive God’s guiding hand in his tumultuous life, steeled and sensitized by adversity turned into advantage. Joseph and the Maccabees of all ages have taught that to be a Jew is to somehow make a difference, reducing darkness and rejoicing in the light’s promise.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim. He is Honorary Senior Rabbi Scholar at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church.