Searching for Joseph

(Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Congregation Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Michigan)

Shabbat shalom! It’s good to be back! Thank you, Rav Nadav, for the honor of giving a few words of Torah this morning. 

These past few parshiot, we have been deeply engaged with Joseph, that maddening, inspiring, outsized personality whose story looms large over both Sefer Breishit and Sefer Shmot and yet who remains nameless in our liturgy. That in itself is curious, that he gets four parshiot (maybe four and a half) and yet not a word in our daily prayers. I’ll say more about that in a bit. First the inspiration for what we’ll explore today.

When I rolled into town last Sunday, after the hugs and the reunions (shades of Vayigash), I was greeted with a question from my favorite Joseph: my father, Joseph Gurt. In his inimitable way, Dad said, “I’m gonna ask you a question. The Rabbi talked about Joseph yesterday, and I kept wondering. Why is Joseph so important?” 

Good question, Dad. Let’s get into it.

At the simplest level, Joseph is an interesting dude. He has a rich and complicated emotional life and a unique temperament. As a younger man, he tends toward arrogance; who am I kidding, many readers find the Joseph of Parshat Vayeshev insufferable, between his telling tales to Jacob about his big brothers, and his self-centered dreams, and of course, his preening around in his special coat from his father. Like a classic favorite child, he believes his own publicity a little too much and assumes, both awake and asleep, that the world revolves around him. I’m not recommending throwing your annoying siblings into a pit or selling them into servitude, but you can kinda see where the brothers are coming from.

Yet the narcissism is not the only aspect of Joseph’s character. His is a complex temperament with many facets. Even after he becomes a powerful figure in Egypt he continues to seek his father’s approval, as when, after revealing himself to his brothers, he sends them to bring Jacob from Eretz Canaan to Egypt and instructs them to tell him all about his high status in the land of Egypt. His insecurity, despite having been the golden child, is fascinating—and probably a good lesson for us parents about holding boundaries for our children even as we love them unconditionally. 

In Breishit 45:28, just after Jacob receives the news that Joseph is still alive and has reached a position of prominence in Egypt, we read: 

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת׃ 

It is plenty! My son Joseph is still alive. Let me go and see him before I die.

The 13th century French commentator Chizkuni notes about the words

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי

“Yaakov meant that when the brothers told him that Joseph was alive, and that he was a ruler in Egypt, the second part of the sentence was unnecessary. As long as he knew that Joseph was alive, he was totally unconcerned with Joseph’s standing politically.” 

It seems that despite all the advantages that his brothers resent him for, Joseph remains heart-wrenchingly human in his insecurity and need to please his father. 

Joseph is also a person of great determination and resourcefulness. Despite the abuses he experiences as a young man, and despite the longing for family, despite the enslavement and the wrongful imprisonment, he becomes a role model in many ways. This is a person who overcomes his hard times and cleverly uses his skills to better himself and improve his position. Joseph, despite everything that has happened to him, never gives up. Even when he’s in jail, his charisma enables him to rise to a position of importance, and he uses his skill at dream interpretation to make himself indispensable. When opportunity strikes, he is Joseph-on-the-spot to take what advantage he can, and to plant the seeds with Pharaoh’s cup-bearer that will eventually lead to his release. 

Once released, he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and adds advice for how to manage the coming famine. Because his advice is sound, he quickly rises in the ranks and becomes second in command to Pharaoh himself. When opportunity knocks, Joseph opens the door wide. 

And when his brothers knock, he sees the opportunity to test their loyalty. Once satisfied that they have grown up too, he opens the door wide for them as well. In Parshat Vayigash he finally reunites with his family, and rather than holding a grudge against his brothers, he models forgiveness. In Breishit 45:5 he says:

וְעַתָּה  אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם׃ 

Now, don’t be distressed and don’t blame yourselves that you sold me here, for it was to save life that God sent me here before you. (Breishit 45:5)

Joseph’s ability to level up and take a higher perspective about what happened in the past makes for one of the most moving scenes in the Torah. 

It’s not only the strength of character to forgive. Joseph’s capacity to perceive that even the harshest mistreatment—and the misfortune that followed it—could be composted into a higher purpose is another aspect of his personality that makes him interesting and important in our tradition. His behavior in this scene contains a powerful teaching that echoes throughout our literature and throughout our history. It is not for nothing that one of the most persecuted peoples on earth, a tiny fraction of the world’s population, has produced some of the most important scientific, artistic, and philosophical work. Like Joseph, we don’t give up; thֿat ability to keep moving forward in impossible circumstances is one we can and do emulate.

These, then, are some of the reasons Joseph is so important at eye level. 

Yet he is also important at sky level. The Joseph story, even his brothers’ youthful betrayal, is part of the architecture of our tradition. His being sold (back in Vayeshev) to some passing Ishmaelim into a life of slavery set into motion one of the foundational narratives of our people. 

If Joseph hadn’t gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh wouldn’t have been prepared for the famine and there would have been widespread starvation and destruction; perhaps our tradition would have ended before it started. If he hadn’t been able to forgive his brothers and settle them in Goshen near him to ride out the long years of scarcity, the Israelites would not have gained a foothold in Egypt and grown numerous. If Joseph hadn’t had such a reputation, there would not have arisen eventually a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and the entire tradition of liberation and redemption would not be ours.

In simple terms: no Joseph, no Mitzrayim. No Mitzrayim, no Yetziat Mitzrayim.

Indeed the foundations of this architecture are way back in Lech L’cha, when God tells then-childless Abraham in chapter 15 that his descendants will be enslaved in a land not their own for 400 years and that God will redeem them.

Which brings us back to the question of why Joseph isn’t in the siddur. I would argue that he actually is, just not by name. In Mishnah Brachot 1:5, the Sages discuss the commandment in Dvarim 16:3: 

לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

In order to remember the day of your departure from Egypt כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ (all the days of your life)

The Sages of the Mishnah wonder together about that phrase כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ and whether it implicates recalling Yetziat Mitzrayim in evening prayers, as we now do. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya notes Ben Zoma’s interpretation: that the כֹּל makes the difference. He says: 

יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַלֵּילוֹת. 

Yemei chayecha indicates the days. KOL yemei chayecha indicates also the nights.

וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ: 

And the Sages continue: Yemei chayecha is this world. KOL yemei chayecha in order to bring the Days of Moshiach.

Not only does the story of enslavement and eventual triumph, which has Joseph’s fingerprints all over it, get mentioned in the siddur on a daily and nightly basis, the mitzvah of recalling it has the power to bring about ultimate redemption.

I would argue there is another, subtler way, that Joseph influences our liturgy. Joseph is a big cryer, probably the one with whom the shoresh letters bet chaf yud—to weep—are most associated. Joseph has big feelings, and when he reveals his true identity to his brothers—not as the powerful man in Egypt who holds their very lives in his hands but as their long-lost brother—the river of sadness and longing for family that he’s kept in check all this time overflows its banks וַיִּתֵּן אֶת־קֹלוֹ בִּבְכִי and he gives his voice to weeping. Contrary to 21st century American culture, which regards emotion with suspicion at best, our tradition valorizes it and regards it as a direct pathway to the Divine.

We learn on Baba Metzia 59a that from the moment the Temple was destroyed the gates of tefillah are locked. But, the Sages continue:

ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו, שערי דמעות לא ננעלו

Even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not locked.

With his resourcefulness, capacity to forgive, emotional openness, and ability to see the bigger canvas, the Joseph of the Bible—annoying Joseph, agonizingly human Joseph, overdramatic, spoiled Joseph—grows up and ends up being our teacher in so many ways, and his influence echoes subtly and profoundly down the generations.