Sunday, February 01, 2004
Remember the service that we went to at Adas Israel when it was your Yahrzeit. I may have told you that I really liked the Rabbi's sermon that night. It had to do with the story of Joseph, which I know you loved. I liked the sermon because it showed how we shouldn't waste time holding grudges, especially with family members. I think that this is a really important lesson for all of us. I wish that everyone would think about you and realize how precious time and family are.
Rabbi Shena B. Potter
Adas Israel Congregation
1 Tevet 5764/ 26 December, 2003
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Channukah! It is so good to be here tonight, gathered as a Jewish community of people from many congregations. Tonight, on this final night of Channukah, we celebrate Jewish survival, the miracle of God's presence and, by our being together, the thriving Jewish community of Washington, DC. As the most recent rabbinic arrival to the Washington area, I have been designated to deliver tonight's sermon. It's a sort of clerical hazing if you will. But, it is also an honor. I thank Rabbi's Wohlberg and Winaker for inviting me to share the bima with them this evening.
This week's Torah portion, parasha Miketz, from the book of Genesis is a wonderful piece of literature. This story of Joeseph's reunion with his brothers contains drama, suspense, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. In fact, the tale is so compelling that it was given the ultimate seal of approval, by being made into a Broadway musical.
At the beginning of the parasha Joseph is in jail. Over the years, Josheph had endured many figurative and literal ups and downs. First, he was cast into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers as a young boy. Then, he was brought into an Egyptian minister's home and rose to the top of the Minister's servant staff. After being falsely accused of rape, he was thrown into Pharoah's dungeon to languish until this week's portion when our hero begins another ascent. Joseph-- who's reputation as an interpreter of dreams precedes him, is brought out of the dungeon to make sense of a series of the Pharoah's disturbing dreams.
With God's help, Joseph wisely understands the dreams as a foretelling of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Phaoroah, sensing Joseph's wisdom, appoints him as Minister of Agriculture and empowers Joseph to implement a conservation plan. It is in this role that Joseph encounters his brothers who have come down from the land of Canaan to Egypt seeking food. Seeking an audience with Joseph, his brothers are completely unaware of his ture identity. Joseph, however recognizes them and begins a game of deception that leads to a bargain whereby his brothers will receive food ONLY if they return with their father's youngest son, Benjamin. Joseph's manipulation continues as he plants a chalice in Benjamin's bag. When his guards stop the departing brothers, Joseph decrees that Benjamin will remain as his personal slave as punishment for the theft while the others are permitted to return to Canaan. On this note the portion concludes.
Whew! You can't find this much drama on HBO.
Our rabbis were particularly enthralled by Joseph's behavior. To no surprise, they disagreed about the morality of Joseph's underlying intent. To some, Joseph is referred to Yosef ha tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous. But to others, his actions seem vengeful and cruel.
Maurice Samuels, author of "Certain People of the Book," characterizes Joseph's behavior as callous. Samuels draws attention to how capriciously Joseph toyed with his brothers while his elderly father and his brothers' wives and their small children waited for bread. Samuels is embarrassed by what he deems Joseph's, "wantonness, frivolity, and cruelty." 15th century scholar, Don Isaac Abravanel also questioned Josheph's behavior. The brothers' actions, while evil in intention, had ultimately served Joseph for good. Abravanel argues that Joseph's rise to power could never have occurred if he had not first been sold into slavery. Abravanel cannot understand, therefore, why Joseph acts with such cruelty.
On the other hand, others have drawn much less critical conclusions about our forefather. Nachmanides interpreted Joseph's actions simply as an effort to help fulfill his youthful prophecy that one day his brothers would serve him. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev went a step futher. teaching that it was a sign of Joseph's righteousnss that he did not immediately reveal himself to his brothers. He made himself a stranger to them so that it appeared that his brothers were simply bowing to a king. He also did not send word of his survival to his father, because he wanted to spare his brothers the bitterness of defeat. Levi Yitzchak believed that Joseph's pretense of being a stranger was actually an act of kindness.
And as for the hoops Joseph made his brothers jump through: These could be interpreted as a test he had devised to ensure that they had truly repented for the cruelty they had done to him. He wanted to create some way to determine that his brothers had grown morally. Thus, when faced with the choice of leaving Benjamin to slavery and allowing the rest of the brothers to escape or to all go down together, the brothers chose to sacrifice themselves to protect Benjamin. In this way they demonstrated true teshuvah, true repentance. They encountered a similar situation to that of when they sold Joseph into slavery, and this time, they behaved selflessly.
So which is it? Was Joseph unduly cruel? Or was he more compassionate than most, shielding his family from further pain while providing an opportunity for growth? Neither side of the argument seems completely convincing. In the end, Joseph the Righteous's behavior was neither entirely righteous nor entirely cruel. It was, however utterly human.
It is in Joseph's struggle between what must have been an incredible thirst for revenge competing with a profound need for family reconciliation that we find a powerful lesson.
In the story of Joseph, we see a man give in to his baser instincts. He makes his brothers fear for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. They stammer and protest. They beg and plead. And Joseph appears to enjoy it. Yet, we also see Joseph's concern for his family. Upon meeting his brothers, he immediately asks after the welfare of his father, Jacob, and of his younger brother, Benjamin. Several times he has to step away from them to compose himself, because he is so overcome with emotion.
We, the reader can taste Joseph's desire for revenge. As the one who controlled who received food and who didn't, the lives of all the people in the land were in Joseph's hands. After all these years, here his brothers stood before him, vulnerable and humbled. He could have crushed them with nod of his head. But, the little tattletale brother, the favorite of his father had also grown up. He had learned humilty, and he had learned humanity. He could have destroyed his brothers, but ultimately he chose not to. In next week's Torah portion, we witness a joyful reunion of the entire family. Joseph reveals himself, the brothers ask forgiveness, and a peaceful new life together begins.
Our moral struggles may not be as dramatic as the dilemmas faced by Joseph and his brothers, but they are no less significant. We make choices every day in how we behave, how we treat others - do we ask for forgiveness often enough? Do we ever truly grant it? Do we needlessly keep alive old grudges, or do we make amends? Do we seek to evolve emotionally, spiritually and morally, or do we compromise that which we know is important out of convenience or exhaustion.
We are here this evening on the last night of Channuka and at the cusp of the secular new year. Tonight, we have lit all nine candles on our Channukiot, and in doing so we publicize the miracle of Jewish survival and vitality. We are taught that the Jewish people are to be an "Or l'Goim," a light unto the nations. What do we do in our daily lives to increase the light in this world and to be a model of menschly behavior?
This secular new year can serve as a time of reckoning. Although it it not a religious holiday, it is a natural time to take stock. What have we done in the past year of which we are proud? Is there anything of which we are ashamed? Have we given enough of ourselves? Have we been a source of light to those around us?
On this last night of Channukah, I have a wish for us all. May we recognize the struggles in our lives, and choose to be a source of inspiration. - May the struggles within ourselves be won by our better inclinations and may we become be a light of healing and joy to those around us.
Happy Channukah and Shabbat Shalom.