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. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. Please contact the author.
Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today. Oh how I wish he’d go away!
– William Hughes Mearns, Antigonish
In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 44:18-47:27) Joseph goes from being The Man Who Wasn’t There, to being The Man Who Is Very Much There. Since their arrival in Egypt’s central marketplace and their unknowing first encounter with Joseph, his brothers have described him repeatedly with one word – in Hebrew, Einenu, meaning “he is not.” Starting with their first protestation of innocence (42:13) the brothers say, “We are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And behold, the youngest is today with his father; and then the one, he is not.”
Once again the Torah reveals through seemingly straightforward narrative the obscure inner workings of the human psyche. Joseph never asks his brothers about their family, yet they immediately offer up information about their father, about their youngest brother Benjamin, and about their missing brother “who is not.” So confounded are they by their own guilt that when Jacob later berates them, asking why they gave up so much information, the brothers reply, “The man kept asking us about ourselves and our family – ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have a brother?’” This is not true, according to the initial description of the encounter. They cap this off with “… how could we have known he would say ‘Bring your brother here’?” How, indeed…? It’s almost as though they engineered it.
Guilt is a powerful force. It drives so much that is both the very best, and the very worst in human behavior. We note King David’s heartfelt “I know my transgressions; my sin is before me always” (Ps. 51:3), both a cry of torment and a recognition that we have so much to learn from our past – from our mistakes most of all. (And as has been said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself.”)
When Joseph accuses his brothers of coming to Egypt as spies, what is going through their minds? And when they recount this to their father, what are they seeing? Do they suddenly embody the young Joseph – whose father sent him to spy on his own brothers? The spy whom they nearly murdered, but then threw down a pit? The words “Do you have a brother?” which are not spoken by Joseph, but which they vividly imagine, and which resonate powerfully in all their minds – to whom do they refer? Mightn’t it be to Joseph himself? Like Lady Macbeth dreaming of blood on her hands, washing and wiping and wiping and washing and still it will not come away – “Out, out, damned spot!” the sleepwalker cries in her anguish – the brothers are desperate to erase Joseph from their memory. So much so, that he is the first thing that pops unbidden into their mouths. The One Who is Not.
Joseph’s brother Reuben is in agony. “Didn’t I say, ‘Don’t sin against the boy?’ But you wouldn’t listen. And now his blood is being avenged!” Reuben – Jacob’s firstborn – is the only brother who doesn’t know what happened to Joseph, and we now understand Reuben’s painful offer to Jacob when the brothers try to convince him to send Benjamin down to Egypt with them. “You may kill my two sons if I fail to bring Benjamin back to you…” Reuben, who was absent at the moment his brothers threw Joseph down the pit, believes himself responsible for the death of Jacob’s son. And so he offers his father this dreadful eye for an eye. Only Judah is able to step out from the shadow of guilt; he was the one who convinced his brothers not to murder Joseph. Now, with the food supply down to life-threatening levels, he alone makes a reasoned plea: I will pledge my entire responsibility for your son – my brother. The Torah makes it plain that not everything can be fixed, not everything can be guaranteed. But Judah steps up and bears responsibility, and that is often the most that can be asked of anyone.
The brothers return to Egypt bringing Benjamin, as ordered. There they are caught in a trap and threatened with the very thing their father dreaded, the loss of their youngest brother. Now, fulfilling his pledge, Judah approaches Joseph and relates their father’s hardship over the death of Joseph, and his deep attachment to Joseph’s brother, the sole surviving son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel – Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin.
Finally Joseph can restrain himself no longer. “I am Joseph,” he cries. “Is my father still alive?!” This verse holds the key to the ultimate transformation of Joseph into the great figure he is – that he was destined to become.
With profound insight into the nature of both spiritual greatness and political leadership, Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550) comments on this verse that Joseph was not speaking out of joy and relief, but that he was startled.
Judah makes a heart-wrenching plea to Joseph. Listen as he recounts Jacob’s words to him: “So if you take this [son] away from me also, and if disaster should befall him, then you will have brought my grey head down in evil to the grave.”
Writes Rabbi Sforno, Joseph’s shocked reaction is, “I thought I was my father’s favorite!” Jacob is still alive? And it is not for grieving over Joseph that Jacob would die, but for grieving over Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother?!
This reaffirms the key ongoing biblical theme of the younger brother supplanting the older. But for Joseph it is an awakening. It is, at last, Cain reacting not with rage, but with wisdom.
Imagine ourselves in Joseph’s place. Wouldn’t we be furious to learn that we weren’t so important after all? That once we disappeared, our father got over it? That our younger brother had taken our place?
Here, at last, Joseph’s full greatness emerges. This is Joseph, who recognized and overcame the human tendency to venality and corruption; who took control of Egypt’s food supply and used it both to sustain the nation and to consolidate Pharaoh’s power. A brilliant political masterstroke, worthy of Napoleon in conception and execution. Now Joseph sees that, just as his being brought out of the dungeon, just as his being placed in charge of the food supply, just as his being made viceroy to Pharaoh – just as he was successful in all this precisely because he did not place himself first – so too his greater destiny is not about him, but about his family and the nation that will spring from them. To achieve his destiny, Joseph must make himself into The One Who Is Not.
“It was not you who sent me here,” Joseph reassures his brothers, “but God.” Joseph sees his destiny clearly. Now he reads its signs in every occurrence of his life.
In Joseph’s place, how many of us would want nothing more than to return to our father’s embrace? To wear once again the special coat of The Favorite, and to go back to being the spoiled child? It takes an immense effort and hard-won maturity to acknowledge that you can’t go home again. The direction of life is forward. And if we do not move forward consciously, with determination to keep up, we will be swept along until the waves of reality wash over us, wiping away any trace that we were ever here.
Those who accomplish greatness in life all share one common quality; they see all of their life as of a piece. They do not say, “I was one person then, but I am no longer that person.” They do not reject their past, but they build upon it.
Everything that happens in Joseph’s life works together in a vast mosaic, the pieces dropping in place one by one until the clear picture of his greatness emerges, of his destiny. And without each individual tile – no matter how small in size, how dull in color – Joseph’s destiny would not be complete. It is not those who ignore the past who are condemned to repeat it; rather, those who reject their own history remain its prisoners forever. It is only when we learn to accept who we are – and yes, memories can continue to be painful – only then can we move forward to our unique destiny.
It’s not about me after all, Joseph recognizes. This is more than a relief. It frees Joseph to achieve his full greatness. Life is not about Getting Even; it’s about identifying our Destiny and embracing it. Because if our ambition in life is nothing more than to return to our childhood, to wipe away everything that happened since the last time we remember being happy, then we reject that unique destiny that God has prepared for us. If we truly want nothing more than to return to infancy, then that – alas – will be our fate.
Yours for a better world.