The humility of Joseph

The relationship of Joseph and his brothers continues the deeply painful previous sibling rivalries of the three Patriarchal and Matriarchal families.

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Joseph Interprets Two Prisoners' Dreams (Genesis 40). Wood engraving, published in 1886.

We are in the Book of Bereshit/Genesis. It is divided into three sections. The first section runs from Chapter 1-11. It is devoted to creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood. It is the record of humanity and society in collapse and disintegration after the Creation. The second section of the Book of Bereshit is the narrative of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. It runs from Chapter 12-36. In these two sections there are all sorts of conversations going on between God and the key actors in these Biblical dramas.

Our Torah reading calendar now turns to Joseph. The narrative of Joseph runs from Chapter 37 to the end of Bereshit in Chapter 50. Not once in these 14 chapters does God speak to Joseph. More literary space is devoted to the saga of Joseph than to any of the Patriarchs or Matriarchs. He is the late-born beloved son of the beloved wife of Jacob, Rachel. She was barren for so long. As Jacob and his family return to the Land of Israel after 20 years in Mesopotamia, his mother Rachel dies.

The relationship of Joseph and his brothers continues the deeply painful previous sibling rivalries of the three Patriarchal and Matriarchal families. Joseph is the most beloved of his father's 12 sons and one daughter. He is the son of Jacob's old age. He is spoiled. He gossips against his brothers to their father, Jacob. They conspire to murder him and finally sell him into slavery. The rest of the narrative is well known. He becomes Viceroy of Egypt, saving it from famine. God never talks to Joseph. God never instructs Joseph. Joseph has to figure it all out by himself. Joseph undergoes significant personality and character development. He moves from being a spoiled troublemaker to a deeply thoughtful brother who knows how to extricate his brothers from the very sins they committed against him, from the brutality of their murderous designs, to their kidnapping of him and sale of him into slavery.

Seventeen years after the crime, upon first meeting his brothers, he is initially overcome with anger. The Torah does not prohibit anger. The Torah places limits on what one can do with the anger. Joseph quickly moves beyond anger to fulfill his obligation to knit this family back together again. He succeeds in doing so. He tests his brothers, placing them in the same situation in which they were years ago when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery and they did not repeat the sin. Joseph is well remembered for his coat of many colors, for rejecting the seduction of Potiphar's wife, for being kidnapped and sold into slavery, for becoming Viceroy of Egypt. However, we do ourselves and Joseph a disservice if we do not take note of a brief last conversation with his brothers.

It is only after all these dramas in a seemingly prosaic afterthought that we gain the valedictory of Joseph's life. His brothers come to him. Their father Jacob has died. They fear that even though there has been a reunion, now that Jacob is gone, Joseph will take revenge for the kidnap and sale into slavery. He teaches them:

And he (Joseph), said to them, "Do not be in fear for I am not in God's stead."

Each book of the Torah begins and ends with the same theme. Bereshit/Genesis began with the sin of hubris. Adam and Eve accepted the serpent's branding of the Tree of Knowledge "for in the day that you eat of it you will be like God, knowing all." For asserting that they know what God knows, they were punished with famine and fratricide. God tells Adam, by the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, meaning that unlike in the Garden of Eden, farming will now come with difficulty. Indeed, in each of the three Patriarchal families there is famine. For asserting that they are like God, they bequeath to their children-and their children's children-the punishment of fratricide. Beginning with Cain's killing of Abel there is sibling rivalry amongst brothers in each family.

Now, at the end of the book, without benefit of the direct speech of God, along comes Joseph. He is Viceroy over all Egypt. His brothers are afraid of him. He, in all authentic humility, says to them, "I am not in God's stead. I will not judge you. I will not punish you." Who is Joseph? In embracing his brothers he brings an end to the punishment of fratricide first given to Adam and Eve. He brings an end to the punishment of famine, first given to Adam and Eve. Where they presume to be like God, Joseph practices humility. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have succeeded. Without the speech of God, Joseph knows humility. 

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.


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