Saturday, December 7, 2013

Joseph, Jonah, Miriam, and Nelson



Some weeks in shul, I don't hear any cogent words about the Torah portion.  But today at Temple B'nai Brith, reading Parshat Vayigash, I heard at least three wonderful thoughts.

The Torah Portion

Parshat Vayigash brings the story of Joseph to its climax.  When he was young, his brothers sold him into slavery, but he rose to become the leader of Egypt, second in command to the Pharaoh.  At this point in the story, his brothers have come to Egypt three times, twice seeking food in a famine, the third time accused of stealing from the Egyptian leader whom they do not recognize as their brother. 

Joseph has threatened to keep the youngest brother (Benjamin, the son of Rachel, who was Joseph's mother too) in prison forever.  An older brother, Judah, offers to take Benjamin's place, to keep their father Jacob from dying of grief for his favorite remaining son.  Moved to tears, Joseph reveals himself.  He tells them that not they but God sent him to Egypt so that he could do good, and he gets Pharaoh's permission to invite them to bring the entire clan to Egypt to settle.

Today at shul, the twins Jonah and Miriam Freed Boardman celebrated their b'nai mitzvah.  Each said something penetrating about the story.

Three Interpretations

Jonah pointed out that even though the Egyptians regarded the children of Israel/Jacob as barbaric, in the midst of a famine, the Egyptian government invited the Israelites in and made them welcome.  Contrast this to our government, he said, which has been doing so much to turn immigrants and refugees away at the door!

Miriam called our attention to the name of Serach bat Asher, Joseph's niece, one of the only women to be mentioned in the list of Jews who came down to Egypt.  What was so special about Serach?  The text gives no clue, but as usual, that was no bar to the rabbinic imagination.  The rabbis came up with three midrashim about Serach:

  1. She was the one who broke the astonishing news that Joseph was alive to her grandfather Jacob.  He had been mourning Joseph for years, perhaps decades, and even good news might have shocked him and even killed him if not for her gentle manner.  As a reward for caring for her aged grandfather, she was granted a miraculous old age...and lived all the way until the time of Moses.
  2. Serach was the only one who knew the code word that God had given the Israelites to recognize a true prophet.  She vouched for Moses to her people.
  3. Before he died, Joseph arranged to have himself embalmed and made his people promise to take him back to the land of his ancestors.  Four hundred years later, during the Exodus, they had the chance to keep that promise--because Serach knew where Joseph was buried.
Miriam (the namesake of a prophet) reminded us that even a generation ago, she might not have been allowed to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah along with her brother.  With her words of wisdom, she brought women's voices back into the story...including her own.

In response, our congregation's senior leader, Phil Weiss, compared Joseph to another prisoner who rose to leadership: Nelson Mandela.  Like Joseph, Mandela refused to seek revenge on his oppressors.  He and Archbishop Tutu set up commissions for truth and reconciliation instead.  As a result, South Africa still faces many problems, but solving them will not take divine intervention, nor the death of the firstborn.  In this way, Mandela was greater than Joseph.  Joseph left Egypt in a feudal state.  Mandela left South Africa a democracy.


1 comment:

Shane Phelan said...

Thanks, Den! I always learn wonderful things from and with you.