“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they grew frightened, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!'”
Midrash Tanhuma asks: “What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Va-yehi 17; Genesis Rabbah 100:8) His brothers thought that Joseph was dwelling on the terrible deed they had done to him years before.
What was Joseph thinking as he peered into that fateful hole? In what way did he remember that bleak moment? The midrash answers: “Joseph stood up and prayed, ‘Blessed is God who performed a miracle for me in this place!”
There, gazing into a barren crater, the place of his greatest danger and fear, Joseph looks back and sees not damage, but blessing, meaning, purpose.
In retrospect, he is able to piece together the harrowing events of his life into a story that reveals God’s intent. “Although you intended me harm,” he says, “Elohim Chashavah l’tovah/ God intended it for good, to bring about the present result— L’hachayot Am Rov/ to keep alive many people” (Genesis 50:20).
Oh, the clarity of hindsight, if we only knew then what we know now – our trials and challenges would have purpose and our achievements would have context and perspective.
Mark Twain is credited (perhaps erroneously) with the maxim “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Similarly, writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “those who do not study history are bound to repeat it.” (The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, George Santayana 1905)
Both maxims instruct that we would be wise to pay heed to, lest we repeat the failures of the past.
American historian Timothy Snyder, is the author of the book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”. Snyder is a highly regarded expert on the atrocities of the 20th century. Following the November 2016 US Presidential election Snyder wrote a widely re-published article that served as the basis for his book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”. In both Snyder advised [North] Americans to learn from the experience of Europeans who watched as democracy was wiped out before their eyes.
Snyder warns citizens not to be distracted when “the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power.” (Timothy Snyder https://qz.com/846940/a-yale-history-professors-20-point-guide-to-defending-democracy-under-a-trump-presidency/)
As evidence of this he points to the Reichstag fire. The burning of the Reichstag, [the German parliament] building in Berlin, on the night of February 27, 1933. It was a key event in the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship and widely believed to have been contrived by the newly formed Nazi government itself to turn public opinion against its opponents and to assume emergency powers.
It was that sudden disaster that required the end of the balance of power, control of the press, the end of opposition parties, and so on. Snyder cautions us that it is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book, and not to fall for it.
The Germans or Italians of the 1920s and 1930s did not elect their leaders thinking they were voting away their freedoms and security. They were scared and they wanted a strong leader to protect them. Then that fear was exacerbated by a crisis (real or imagined), and as we have seen so many times throughout history a scapegoat was found, it has been us more times that we can count, the peoples’ energies were directed toward that contrived cause of all their fears, and human beings were thrown literally and figuratively, like Joseph into the pit.
This week’s torah portion ends the dramatic play of Joseph and his brothers on a redemptive and conciliatory note, but we must not overlook the rupture that led us to this moment. His brothers convinced themselves that he was the enemy, that his behavior was more than annoying, and bothersome, it was a mortal danger and so the rules of family and siblings no longer applied – he was a cancer that had to excised.
We would be right to worry what will happen when the latest version of Joseph’s brothers decide that they can no longer tolerate that annoying voice that keeps questioning their actions.
What will happen when they realize that they are 11 against one, that they have all the power and can do what they want without fear of repercussions because with the ‘Fake News’ of a bloody coat of many colors they can play on our already heightened fears, covering over their own heinous crimes with crocodile tears.
Victor Frankl wrote, “The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected…What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl 1963 p. 157)
If hindsight is 20/20, and if history rhymes, then our present reality with its increased antisemitism (I make it a point to use the term ‘Jew Hatred’, as I think antisemitism obscures the true victims of this longest hatred) looks and sounds a lot like the 1920s and 30s.
With the insight of our own history as daughters and sons of Joseph, we have to ask, ‘What is our meaning in this moment? What are we here to do? As Mordechai said to Esther as he spurred her to action at the brink of disaster, “Mi Yodea im la’et kazot higa’at la’malchut? /Who knows if it was just for this moment that you arrived at majesty?” (Esther 4:13-14)
As Joseph stares into the pit, I wonder if that was the thought running through his mind?
Hardly a week goes by without someone on Facebook or in the mainstream media posting Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller’s haunting poem “FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE SOCIALISTS…”
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
(Gerlach, Wolfgang. And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Jews . Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p. 47.)
The poem stems from Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. His point was that too many who should have known better were silent when their voices were needed most. Particularly he points to people of faith who read a book, the bible, whose central narratives in both the Hebrew and the Christian versions are of peoples or individuals wrongly persecuted because of the silence of others in the face of totalitarian rulers or who place their own self-interest ahead of the greater good.
A people distracted by fear and lead astray by leaders who promise them they will make them great again if they only blindly follow their lead. Think of Korach and the Golden Calf, Haman’s appeal to Ahasverosh, or the generation of Jews in Egypt that thought the memory of Joseph would keep them safe when a new pharaoh, who didn’t know or owe anything to Joseph came to power.
When Joseph stared into that pit, he may indeed have concluded that what his brothers’ meant for bad, God intended for good – but I pray that he never forgot what they did to him. Even as he forgave them, I pray the lesson he learned from that moment and the lesson that we learn from our own moments of staring back in to the pits from whence our people have suffered and restored is that we should be warry of those that might throw us into the pit in the first place.
We have earned the right, if not the responsibility to be skeptical. The Mishna commands us in Pirkei Avot 2:3, “Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.”
“Mi Yodea im la’et kazot higa’at la’malchut? /Who knows if it was just for this moment that you arrived at majesty?” The world needs the Jews now more than ever. It needs our tortured and harrowing experience, it needs our skepticism, it needs our voice to call out in the deafening silence – we remember the pit, we remember what 11 brothers did to another when they thought no one was watching.