Previously, on As Joseph’s World Turns… Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit! They sold him into slavery and told their father that a beast killed him! He was falsely accused and thrown in prison! He interpreted dreams for two of Pharaoh’s servants! This week he interprets dreams for Pharaoh himself, whereupon he’s promoted to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, in charge of all the granaries of Egypt. And now there’s a famine, and his brothers come seeking food...
They don’t recognize him. Joseph seems to be testing them to see if they’ve changed. He accuses them of being spies, holds Shimon prisoner, and sends the others to bring him Benjamin. They return home with grain and they tell their father what transpired. Then Jacob says, “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!” (Gen. 42:34)
I empathize. First he lost his most beloved wife, and then he lost his most beloved son (or at least, he has every reason to think he did). I can scarcely imagine that kind of loss. And… it’s still striking to me that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these losses impacted the whole family. Even if the other brothers didn’t like Joseph, his death would have impacted them. What kind of father has Jacob been able to be for them all these years?
I’m also struck that he seems to be focusing on what he’s lost, and not on what he still has: the brothers who are still there, taking care of him, providing for his needs. Let’s juxtapose that with a different verse from earlier in this week’s parsha. Pharaoh has just had Joseph released from prison and said to him, “I hear you can interpret dreams.” Joseph’s response is, “בִּלְעָדָ֑י אֱלֹהִ֕ים יַעֲנֶ֖ה אֶת־שְׁל֥וֹם פַּרְעֹֽה / Not I! God will see to the peace of Pharaoh.” (Gen. 41:16)
He’s saying: ”it’s not about me. God is working through me. If I’m a clear channel, something will come through me, maybe an understanding of your dream that will bring you to some kind of shleimut, wholeness. But I’m just a conduit, I’m not in charge. Wisdom comes not from me, but through me. Peace comes not from me, but through me. It’s not about me at all.” Notice how Jacob’s response is a kind of closing-down, while Joseph’s is a kind of opening-up.
Jacob’s losses of a spouse and a child have shrunk his worldview down to his suffering. He can’t imagine a positive outcome; he just assumes the worst. Joseph’s experienced losses too: his home, his family, his freedom. (Tradition teaches he was in prison for 12 years, forgotten and alone.) But where Jacob seems to me to be shut-down, internally adrift, Joseph seems to emerge from the crucible of his losses with humility and increased capacity to care for others.
Torah isn’t just about “them” back “then.” It’s also always about us here and now. We all have this Jacob within us: that wounded place that experiences everything as another blow landing on an emotional bruise that never heals. Maybe it’s personal: there was a loss or a betrayal that taught us to expect more of the same. Maybe it’s epigenetic: our ancestors went through it, and we’re still feeling it. Maybe it’s collective: the Jewish people has been through so much.
And we all have this Joseph within us: the capacity to recognize that there’s a source of meaning outside of us and that a life of meaning asks us to help those in need. Every life contains brokenness, and those broken places can make us angular and sharp. Or, we can become softened, like seaglass. Our losses can sensitize us to the needs of others. We can conclude that we’re God’s hands in the world, helping whoever we can however we can.
It’s easy lately to do what I see Jacob doing here – to say, “These things always happen to us.” We know our terrible history of persevering through persecution and pogroms. With antisemitism rising, with our fears activated by Hamas and by those who support Hamas, it's easy to feel that the whole world is against us. We may feel we can’t trust anyone to stand up for the Jewish people. It is easy to become like Jacob, mired in our own suffering.
We can choose to be more like Joseph. To let our losses shape us without consuming us. To recognize that even though we may feel existentially alone in this world as Jews right now, that’s not necessarily true. The other day I treated myself to lunch out with a book. A stranger, seeing my kippah, wished me happy Chanukah. I didn’t know until later that she had also quietly paid for my meal. An act of anti- antisemitism. We’re not as alone as we may feel.
In this moment of Jacob’s life all he can see is his losses, so all he expects is more loss. I say to my inner Jacob: I get why you feel that way. I honor these hurts. And: this is not all that life is. In this moment of Joseph’s life, he’s gained valuable perspective. He’s experienced what it’s like to feel that God is with him. I believe that God is always with us, but often we’re not awake to that reality. At this point in his story, Joseph is awake to that, and I think it changes him.
As always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute a word that does: Justice, Love, Truth, Meaning, Hope. All of these ask us to act. These are our calling as Jews and as human beings. Our job is to fix what we can and help who we can. Even if we’re not in charge of the granaries of all Egypt, even when we feel helpless in the face of the world’s vast suffering, there is always something we can do for someone in need.
These last few months have been hard. There’s so much to grieve – I don’t need to list it for you, you’re living it too. Many of us are in a pit. Torah says the pit into which Joseph was thrown was a place with no water: no Torah or sustenance or hope. But we can help each other climb out… and we can help each other remember not only what we’ve lost, but also what we’ve found: that our low times can fuel either our despair, or our capacity for kindness and care.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)