When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
I’d put prison second to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking. If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.
– Malcolm X
This week’s Torah reading (Genesis chapters 37-40 inclusive) introduces us to Joseph, the richest and most complex figure we shall meet in the Bible until King David. In this section all the themes of Genesis come together, forming the nucleus from which Moses and the Jewish people will emerge and setting the stage for the entire Western ethos. Joseph’s greatness is, at this stage, inchoate. We saw how many catalytic events were required to awaken Jacob to exercise of his own power. Joseph, who will exceed his father in greatness, requires a far more jarring sequence of events, spread over decades, to uncover his own light. Joseph inherits his father’s fateful struggle with dream and prophecy with a vengeance. It takes a tumultuous lifetime for him to embrace his destiny.
Jacob makes the same mistake as a parent that his own parents made. Isaac favored Esau, and Rebecca favored Jacob (Gen. 25:28), now Jacob takes this a terribly misguided step further, showing that he favors Joseph not merely above his other children but to the exclusion of the others. Jacob loves Joseph, “the son of his old age,” and makes him a special coat (37:3.) In the original Hebrew this coat may be an unusual and distinctive shade of green, or a mix of colors, or a special long-sleeved garment, but it clearly confers a special status. Jacob, whose life was upended by a garment (the theft of his brother’s clothing in order to perpetrate the far greater theft of the birthright) now gives a garment to Joseph, an act that will change the course not only of his family’s future, but of human history. In the Bible, what goes around always continues to come around, as people seem fated to repeat patterns of behavior, for good or for ill. And note, as the Hassidic rebbes maintain, everything in this world is either good or evil. Nothing is inert, nothing is benign. Everything is exactly what we make of it.
Joseph displays no intrinsic merit. If anything, he seems less capable than his brothers. He is his father’s son. Jacob, “a simple man, dwelling in tents…” (25:27.) emerges as a mama’s boy and a stay-at-home, in contrast to his brother Esau, the outdoorsman, hunter, and jock. Joseph is his father’s pet and can’t even find his own way through the landscape (37:15-16 describes Joseph “blundering about” in the open fields looking for his brothers), yet the special coat and the exalted status conferred arbitrarily by Jacob give Joseph a sense of innate superiority. Think of today’s culture of “everyone gets a trophy.” Joseph does nothing to earn his status, thus he believes his own superiority to be comprehensive, natural, and obvious. Since he did nothing to achieve his status, it is obvious to him that he doesn’t need to do anything to maintain it. When he recounts his dreams, he is oblivious to his brothers’ hatred for him. Joseph knows himself to be superior and assumes everyone accepts this to be the case.
Jacob deepens his own fault, dispatching Joseph to spy on his brothers (37:12-14) “Your brothers are tending the flocks near Shechem… Go and check on them and on the flocks and bring back word to me.” But his brothers have other plans, stripping him of his coat and tossing him down the well.
Joseph’s dreams at the beginning of the portion are mirrored in the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and Pharaoh’s royal baker at the end (chapter 40.) As Jacob earlier dreamt of a ladder with angels ascending and descending, here Joseph dreams of himself ascending, and his brothers descending, or bowing before him – symbolized by sheaves of grain, as well as literally by the sun, moon and stars prostrating themselves before him. In the prison, the royal cup-bearer’s dream is one of ascent – he will be restored to his former office – while the royal baker’s dream is of the ultimate descent: he is brought from the dungeon and executed. (This also contains echoes of the Cain and Abel narrative: one offering – the cup-bearer’s – is accepted, while the other is rejected.)
Joseph too goes up and down – literally and figuratively. He rises in his father’s estimation, then is brought low and cast down into a pit. He is raised up, only to be sold into slavery. And still he hasn’t learned his lesson. God favors Joseph, making his work in his Egyptian master’s house successful. When his master’s wife attempts to seduce him, he can’t help but tell her just how big a catch he really is. He barely manages to spurn her advances, but can’t help boasting (39:9) “My master has turned over everything in his house to me and to my control. There is no one greater in this household than me, and my master has denied me nothing except for you, since you are his wife…” In other words, “You’d be lucky to have me! I’m much more important than your husband – he doesn’t even know what’s going on under his own roof.” And the ultimate seduction, “but you can’t have me!”
And with that, whoosh! back down we go, as Joseph is thrown back into a dungeon. When his cell-mates are troubled by dreams, Joseph becomes excited. “Dreams?” he says. “I know all about dreams!” This time he finally tempers his enthusiasm, telling them that God is the ultimate interpreter (40:8.) This is the first instance where Joseph seems to begin to understand that he must modulate his behavior if he wants to avoid disastrous outcomes. This is a lesson most of us fail to learn completely – we have moments when we follow our impulses, convinced that we are taking the right actions, only to have them blow up in our face.
Look at how long it has taken Joseph – and how much he has been buffeted about by life – before the terrible and false message of his childhood finally starts to give way to reality. And even then, Joseph’s embrace of the truth is equivocal. He asks the cup-bearer to put in a good word for him (40:14-15) saying, “I don’t deserve to be here, I didn’t do anything wrong!” He still doesn’t fully examine his own part in his fate. And doesn’t every convicted criminal say that?
Joseph’s day will come, and he will rise to embrace his destiny. Ironically it will be this same royal cup-bearer – who deliberately puts Joseph out of his mind – who will later come to his rescue. But first Joseph must learn to use his powers. He still needs to stew in his own juices, to age in the darkness of his prison cell, not merely until he is called, but until he is ready to heed the call. To be the truly self-aware leader he is destined to become, Joseph must realize that the life he lives does not belong to him; he will learn, after half a lifetime of pain, that his fulfillment is in service to those around him – more, it is in service to the future of his family and of his people.
As long as we focus on what we can get out of life, our lives will be petty and ultimately meaningless. It is only once we devote ourselves to making the world better for everyone else that we instill true meaning in our own lives. Through that outward focus, we finally unleash the full extent of our unique inner power, our unique inner purpose – the unique reason that God put us here.
Joseph possesses immense powers; he is uniquely blessed by God. Yet none of this matters as long as he does not recognize who and what he is, what his unique purpose is in this world. Indeed, it is far worse to be specially gifted, specially blessed – uniquely chosen for a special destiny – if we do not recognize it.
Each one of us possesses unique qualities, gifts that are given to us alone. The mock-philosophical question, Why is there something instead of nothing? is not the real existential challenge. A far deeper question is, Why is there more than one thing? If God wanted to create Something out of Nothing, then let God create a single thing and voila! If we believe we are capable of any insight into God’s purpose in creation, it would seem to be that each least thing in creation comes into existence for a unique purpose, and that each of us finds our own purpose only in relation to others. Each grain of sand has a purpose, which is to populate the shore. Each fish in the sea and each leaf on the branch serve their purpose of filling the world. How much more must we ascribe to each human being a unique – and necessary – role in God’s work of Creation?
For the person of faith – even when plagued by constant doubt – the fact that you woke up this morning is proof that God still needs you to complete your task in this lifetime. We have unfinished work, all of us alive at this moment. Do we recognize it? Do we grapple with our unique task, or are we oblivious to it? Each one of us is at the center of our own world. The wise person will recognize that, dwelling within that center, our task is not to take what we find within reach, but to sustain everything around us.
God’s lessons are simple and clear. It is we who are slow to learn. May we be blessed with a quickened mind, and may our souls know and see clearly our own unique way forward in God’s world.
Yours for a better world.