Heschel, Francis, and Sacks: Living Joseph’s Lesson

Reflecting upon 2015 and its place in history, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel frames our challenge: “to reconcile God’s view (“And God saw that it was good” Gen.1:25) with our experience.” The Divine lens, of course, is more than illogically optimistic. Tucked within it is a formula for transforming troubling experiences into more hopeful ones.

In this week’s Torah portion Joseph seeks to calm his anxious brothers. “While you thought bad against me, God thought for good” (Gen. 50:20). Seeking to ground this far-reaching claim, the Netziv focuses on a specific incident of ill-will. Joseph’s brother’s cruelly sit down to enjoy a relaxing meal together after having thrown Joseph into a dangerous pit, stripped of his coat of many colors (Gen. 37:25). Even this heartless act could be turned to good. How? Years later the moment of recognition when Joseph realizes that his brother’s no longer harbor jealousy against a favored sibling occurs around a meal. When Benjamin, the other child of the more loved Rachel, is given five times as much food as his brothers receive (Gen. 43:34), they show no sign of resentment. They have matured through the jealousy that brought them to the brink with Joseph years earlier. The meal that once upon a time indicated ruthlessness came to demonstrate repentance.

As fellow-travelers of the Christian faith sit down to their Festive meals, the world’s most prominent religious leader continues to appreciate God’s Covenant with the People of Israel. “Through the awful trials of these last centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God” Pope Francis asserts. “And for this, we, the Church and the whole human family, can never be sufficiently grateful to them.” As writer James Carroll clarifies, “What Jews were condemned for across centuries, that is, they must be thanked for today.”

Religious violence continues to defile. Alas, sacred texts can be fraught and freighted for the fundamentalist. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “Fundamentalists read texts as if God were as simple as we are.”

Yet as Heschel reminds, we are “born to insist and as well as to resist.” As we resist the hijacking of the holy, we insist upon the dignity of difference. Perhaps Joseph’s lesson was not merely for his siblings back then. May 2016 be the year when we live sacred traditions in ways that enhance God’s reputation in the world and warm our faith in one another.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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