William Hamilton

The deeper we dig, the higher we vault

A biblical Joseph could no longer contain his emotions. He began to weep uncontrollably, so audibly that his cry was heard throughout Pharaoh’s palace. Most interpreters struggle with what Joseph says next: “I am Joseph, does my father still live? (Gen. 45:3). Readers are right to be confused here. Joseph had recently been reassured that his father still lives (Gen. 43:28). What’s more, he has been hearing all about his father Jacob from his brother Judah.

The strongest reading of this passage I have ever heard came from a fellow-learner in our community this week. She noted that Joseph words are not about what he seeks to know. Instead they’re about who he essentially is. Joseph is redefining himself in this verse. He sets aside his Egyptian royalty, his towering stature, in order to reveal himself as a vulnerable child, yearning to reclaim his father. He is essentially saying, “I am Joseph, can your father still be a dad to me too?” After all, his brother Judah had just finished referring to Jacob as my father four times in prior verses (Gen. 45:32,34).

But what is most remarkable – by far – is how Joseph’s exclamation continues to pulsate in our lives today. The phrases od avinu chai and am yisrael chai, take their original form in Joseph’s cry. When we sing them, our hearts throb with a defiant affirmation that, against all odds, our Jewish People still lives and thrives. What began as Joseph’s spasm of vulnerability at a low point when his brothers were paralyzed by fear, has been transformed into our People’s exultant eruption of joy.

This strong reading of Joseph’s revelation in this week’s portion of Torah, reminds me of a good piece of advice I recently heard for how to deal with contentious issues.

Find your opponent’s strongest argument, not their weakest. Writer Caitlin Flanagan attributes this advice to her father. Sure, it’s much easier to fixate onto the shinier, more outrageous argument of your opponent on any issue. It’s also more fun. But if you want to be part of a real conversation, then find their best argument. Assert it. Commend it. And you’ll have their attention. Perhaps they’ll be inclined to return the favor.

But even if they don’t, something else may begin to work in your favor.

When you search for their best argument and focus on it, you may find, in so doing, a surprising capacity to bring yourself to your best. This is precisely what our People did with Joseph’s enigmatic utterance. The deeper we dig, the higher we vault.

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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