In this week’s portion, after years of vissicitude, and years of great triumph, Joseph is finally reconciled to his brothers. Joseph had predicted the seven years of famine that wrecked havoc in the region. His advice to the Pharaoh was rewarded with his elevation to the role of viceroy – second only to Pharaoh himself. Back in Canaan, the famine forced Jacob to send his ten older sons to seek grain in Egypt, leaving only Benjamin, the son of the now dead Rachel with his father. Joseph recognised his brothers immediately, but his manner, his position and the circumstances when they were last together prevented them from seeing him for who he was. Joseph played a game with them, accusing them of being spies and refusing to take their word until they proved themselves by bringing their youngest brother to him. This they did, and were about to return home with the promised grain, but Joseph engineered that a cup of his be ‘discovered’ in Benjamin’s sack. Accused of theft, Benjamin was arrested.
Our parashah starts where Judah approaches Joseph and begs that he be imprisoned instead of his brother. His father, he claims, could not bear it. He has lost one beloved son. If now Benjamin, the other son of his true love Rachel were taken from him, he would simply die of the grief. Joseph is so moved by this passionate speech that he has to dismiss all his servants. Nevertheless, his weeping is so loud that all in the palace can hear him. It is at this point that he reveals himself to his brothers.
There seem to be two ways of approaching life in the Bible. The first, we call revelation. God talks directly to people, tells them what to do. God reassures them, blesses them, shows them the future. In the second, God appears to be absent in any sensory way. No visions, no auditory experiences. Yet the person is assured of God’s presence through what he or she makes of the world around them. This philosophical understanding of the Divine is called in scholarly circles ‘wisdom’ - chochmah.
Joseph is a perfect example of this. He never had God ‘speak’ to him in a literal, physical sense. He did not benefit from a close conversational relationship with God as did Abraham. He never saw God give blessing as did Isaac, nor confront God bodily as did Jacob. God does not appear – even in his dreams. Yet as we see in the speech that he gives to his brothers, exonerating them from their part in enslavement, God is at the core of his understanding of life. In the seven sentences in which Joseph tells his brothers what has happened to him, he mentions God four times:
- God sent me before you to save life….
- God sent me ahead to ensure your survival….
- It was not you who sent me here, but God….
- God has made me Lord of all Egypt.
Had Joseph been angry with his brothers, it would have been understandable. He was now in a position to wreak the most terrible revenge. But he does not do so. He sees in all the events of his life a clear pattern of divine providence. This was God’s plan, and Joseph’s destiny could not be diverted only helped by his brother’s actions.
In our lives today, where we are suspicious of miracles and cynical about anything beyond the immediately physical universe, Joseph’s take on the world makes sense. Look about you, measure your experience and see behind it the workings of an infinitely complex but ultimately compassionate God. Where revelation is in short supply, we should use wisdom to understand the world. If we did so, our sense of purpose might be clearer and our lives considerably better.
Rabbi Sybil Sheridan