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The treasure of teshuvah (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I posted for this week's portion two years ago at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

Late in this week's portion, Mikets, there is an intriguing conversation between Joseph -- by now, in command of Egypt's storehouses, and second only to Pharaoh in the power structure of the land -- and his brothers.

The first time the brothers visit Egypt in search of food, Joseph gives a secret order that their money-bags be returned to them along with their grain. Upon their next journey there, they go immediately to Joseph and protest that they don't know how they managed to leave without paying him last time. "Peace be with you," he responds, "Do not be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment."

We, the readers, know perfectly well that the money was returned to them by Joseph. But he chooses to let them believe it is a gift from God. What gives?

One answer can be found by looking at the brothers' response to the unexpected windfall, and what their response tells us about their theology and their sense of themselves in the world. In Genesis 42:27, as the brothers are on their way home from Egypt, one of them opens his sack and finds his money there. The brothers' hearts sink, the text tells us, and they turn to one another trembling, saying, "What is this that God has done to us?"

In this light, Joseph's statement about the money -- that God must have given it to them -- is a kind of gentle rebuke of their theology. The brothers leap immediately to anger with God instead of taking responsibility for their own actions or opening themselves to the possibility that this is a blessing in disguise. In return, Joseph takes care to credit God, as if to remind them of the Source from Whom all blessings flow.

Where Joseph sees blessing, the brothers see themselves being thwarted. These responses aren't innate, but rather learned...and they offer insight into the way that the inability to forgive oneself, and to seek God's forgiveness, can block one to blessing.

Joseph's brothers did a dreadful thing when they were young. They made a terrible mistake, which caused profound suffering -- especially for their father, who was inconsolable at losing Joseph. But it has been years, and they have grown. By now they regret what they did, and wish to move beyond it. And yet they feel plagued by misfortune. The famine, the arduous journey to Egypt, and then the startling discovery that their money had been replaced in their bags: being who they are, they can't help suspecting some kind of plot. They mistrust the world, because they mistrust themselves.

Joseph, on the other hand, has grown into a model of faith in Providence. Despite the dire straits he has often found himself in, God's name has been ever on his lips. In fact, one might argue that his misfortunes have been his best schooling. Having taken a few knocks, he becomes able to recognize God as the source of his dream-interpreting talents -- and having made that recognition, he never again fails to give credit where it's due. When he interprets Pharaoh's dreams, he begins by asserting that not he but God will see to Pharaoh's welfare. As a result of his faith and his humility, Pharaoh promotes him to vizier on the spot.

Joseph's brothers respond to this new twist in their story with fear and blame, signs of their guilty consciences. Perhaps their ambivalent feelings about their brother have metamorphosed, with time, into regret and remorse. They're caught in the past; they can't let go of what they did, which means they can't ask God for forgiveness, which means they can't know themselves to be forgiven. They're stuck, stunted by the moment of their worst collective transgression.

Joseph, in contrast, responds to uncertainty with calm faith. He knows that God is with him, and because he knows it, it is manifestly true. He trusts that things are unfolding as they should, that everything is happening for a reason -- as, indeed, our perspective on the story tells us that it is. He was brought down to Egypt in order to be able to rise up; the Israelites will descend into Egypt in order to be freed; and in both the individual case and the national one, what's important is the moral and spiritual valance of the journey, and the process of transformation that it entails.

Many of us may recognize something of ourselves in Joseph's brothers. We have made mistakes -- perhaps none so weighty as selling a bratty sibling into slavery, but mistakes all the same -- and we are always in danger of forgetting the spiritual leap of teshuvah that leads to forgiveness. When we feel distant from forgiveness, every setback feels like a conspiracy against us, and the easiest response is fear and blame.

But we may also recognize something of ourselves in Joseph, too. This week's portion invites us to find ourselves in the story's hero: to have enough humility to credit our Source for our insight and understanding, and enough wisdom to navigate challenges on even the broadest of scales. To recognize blessings -- even those which we ourselves had a hand in bringing about -- as ultimately a gift from God, abundance flowing from the Source of All. As we meditate on this story this week, may we be truly able to recognize our misdeeds, make teshuvah with whole and open hearts, and relinquish our attachments to who we've been in the past...and may we be able too to mirror Joseph's faith, trust, and benevolence in the face of whatever comes our way.