And Joseph Cried 28 December 2012

Post date: Dec 28, 2012 4:42:45 PM

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs" - hell is full of good wishes and desires, or more commonly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This, I believe, would be a good summary theme for today’s perasha (Torah portion), “Vayehi” (and he lived). It eerily portends the descent of the Jewish people into the bleak period of slavery in Egypt.

Just to paint the picture, Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, we know, started with a great deal of difficulty. Joseph was favored by their towering figure of a father, Jacob. The brothers were jealous and malicious. Out of the calamity of Joseph’s own hardships of slavery, he rose to be Viceroy (like vice president) of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He used that status to save his family from the famine that afflicted the known world at the time, the same famine for which he had successfully prepared Egypt.

As our reading begins, the entire Jewish clan, whose patriarch was Jacob, had moved to Egypt 17 years ago. As a perspective note, 16 years old was late, but still a marriageable age. In other words, babies who were not yet conceived when the Hebrews descended into Egypt were now parents. The clan had settled in.

Jacob gives a famous speech to his children in which he reflects the salient character of each one in the form of a blessing, which, unlike a benediction, is brutally honest. Jacob expires, and after an Egyptian embalming, Joseph requests Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in the ancestral burial ground of Machpelah. Pharaoh grants them permission, and the family goes up to Machpelah (it’s always “up” to Zion and “down” to Egypt) with what seems to be a huge entourage of Pharaoh’s guards and elders. In a subtle foreshadowing of things to come, the Hebrews leave their children, their herds and their flocks in Egypt. Years later, in the midst of the plagues, the then current Pharaoh will tell Moses to go worship God in the wilderness, but leave “your herds and your flocks” behind, which is unacceptable to Moses.

When the Hebrew clan returns from burying Jacob, the brothers have a revelation which is described strangely in the passage, “vayir’u ahei yosef ki meyt avihem,” that is, Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died. How is it that after a 70-day embalming period and a long funeral march of a journey to Canaan with hundreds of people, and depositing Jacob’s body in the cave of Machpelah... after all that, they finally realized that their father was dead? But it is explained in the following sentence, in which the Torah tells us that once Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared that upon Jacob’s death, Joseph would exact revenge for the brothers’ horrible deeds earlier in their lives. The brothers then do what seems to come naturally: they fabricate a lie to elicit Joseph’s temperance. They tell Joseph that just before his death, Jacob, their father, wanted Joseph to forgive all the brothers’ traspasses.

And Joseph wept at their words.

What is odd about this is that we thought this jealousy and envy was over years ago, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers in Egypt, and explained how it must all have been part of a Divine plan. To Joseph, every one of those circumstances, the entirety of his life including the actions of his brothers, led to his being able to save the lives of the entire rest of the family. Joseph had come to terms with this nearly two decades before. The brothers resurrected that old bogeyman.

One might also say the brothers harbored their guilt all those years. That may be so, but we read previously, about some shining examples of growth and maturity in Canaan. First was a little side-story about how Judah admitted guilt and achieved a level of virtue after the affair with Tamar. And when the brothers tried to convince Jacob of the necessity to bring Benjamin to Egypt, again it was Judah whose argument of personal responsibility prevailed on their father. So how was it that after years of spiritual and emotional growth and maturity, that the brothers reverted to these feelings of guilt and apparent insecurity, and buttressed them with a lie to their brother?

And Joseph cried. Some commentators have written that Joseph cried as a way to reassure his brothers of his sincerity about bearing no grudges, since he responds to them with “Fear not. … God meant it for good.” Alternatively, Rabbi N. Daniel Korobin writes, “What anguish Joseph must have had knowing, at this late stage in his life, that he could never go back to being a real brother.”

I believe both these interpretations are valid, but miss a critical insight. Joseph’s actions may have been helpful to save his family from the famine all those many years ago. But bringing them to the comfort of Egypt also had the unintended consequence of stalling, even reversing, the growth, maturity, and independence of the Children of Israel. Until they landed in Egypt, certainly the brothers made mistakes. Except for Reuben, who never seemed to get it, those mistakes were reparable. They were the mistakes from which we learn to do better. Judah, like his father Jacob, left his family, screwed up, acknowledged his mistakes, and fixed them, making a great name for himself in the process.

But once in Egypt, the brothers were contented. They did not want to leave. Even long after the famine was over in Canaan, they stayed in Egypt. When they travelled back to their ancestral home to bury Jacob, they “left their children, herds and flocks.” They had no intention of leaving Egypt. They grew dependent, and that dependence engendered a paucity of will. They chose to maintain their status quo, keep their assets, guard their “condos” in Goshen, rather than move back to Canaan.

Perhaps, when the brothers lied to Joseph, they were not so much afraid of retribution on their lives, but that he would expel them from Egypt. Whatever action they feared Joseph might take, their lie was an indication of how weak they had become, and to what lengths they would go in order not to disturb their way of life. It did not take the next Egyptian Pharaoh long to appreciate this and exploit it. And exploit it he did.

I propose that this is the reason Joseph cried. He saw his greater family’s dependence on Egypt and how vulnerable it made them. Furthermore, he knew that he himself was instrumental in that process. Finally, he knew it was too late for him to do anything about it.

How many times do we start something with the best of intentions, with what we think is the right thing to do in the circumstances, only to realize later what a disaster it really was? How many parents want to give their children the opportunities they themselves never had growing up, and instead, find their children feel only a sense of entitlement? Conversely, how many parents feel they need to teach their children the hard lesson of sacrifice and responsibility, only to find instead their children feel unloved and have difficulty forming emotional bonds?

Joseph’s humanitarian deed of charity was a link in the Israelites’ descent into 400 years of slavery, and the countless personal tragedies related to it. But Joseph’s action was not directly causative. The perasha concludes with a phrase that portends Hitziyat mimitzrayim (exodus from Egypt). Near his death, Joseph says to his brothers, “VaElohim paqod yifqod et’khem” - and God will take notice of you [to bring you back up to the ancestral home. This phrase “paqod yifqod” is based on a root word that does not have a simple analog in English. It means, variously, remember, take note, hear, etc. More relevantly, later in the Torah, when Moses asks of God at the burning bush, how would the Israelites know that Moses is the bonafide messenger of God’s deliverance, God tells Moses to tell the elders, “Paqod paqadeti et’khem,” (I, God, surely remember/take notice of you.)

This is the measure of hope and comfort our religion offers. Yes, we screw up. Even when we think we are doing the most charitable, most intelligent, and most honorable job we can, we may end up enabling something completely contrary to our intentions. It doesn’t make us bad people.

There are far larger cycles that we can not anticipate, that we can not predict. So next time you are arguing with someone about religion, health care, gay marriage, reproductive rights, military posture, partisan politics, or another divisive issue of the day, please leave a little room for doubt on all sides. Given a long enough view of history, every action anyone takes will have some unintended negative consequence. But our perasha teaches us that God will take note of us, even in our darkest hour. In perspective, then no consequence is irreversible.

Shabbat shalom.