For the last number of weeks we have been reading about our ancestors, Jacob’s children. More specifically, we have read about Joseph’s trajectory from favoured son at home, to being a slave, and then to becoming viceroy of all Egypt. By the time he was thirty years old Joseph ruled Egypt. He ran the finances and oversaw all of Egypt’s policies.
In this week’s Torah reading Joseph’s brothers still did not know that the leader they were speaking to was their brother. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin would become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction. Joseph was playing a game with his brothers.
Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard…” When I read those phrases I imagine a stately, handsome regent who is always in control. He is a man who has faced one challenge after another but has always kept his wits about him, analyzed, strategized, and succeeded. He has played with his brothers, waiting for just the right time to reveal his identity. I think he was “undone”, hearing Judah’s humility and love for Yaakov, the father Joseph hasn’t seen and possibly thought he never would see again. The narrative sets the scene in a compelling way. Joseph is so overcome that he loses his controlled facade. Alone with his brothers he lets out such a cry of anguish that the entire land of Mizrayim (Egypt) hears… What powerful text. Joseph forgave his brothers. He feasted with them, gave them gifts of clothing and food, and convinced them to return to Egypt and live in comfort.
Although the story had begun many years earlier with fraternal jealousy, the brothers reunited and rebuilt their family. This was contrary to the patterns we had seen before. Cain killed his brother Abel. Isaac grew up without his brother Ishmael. Jacob and Esau never truly reconciled. In this story we see Joseph and Judah build the unified family which would become a nation.
The haftarah features the prophet Ezekiel. He lived from around 622 BCE – 570 BCE and was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. God told Ezekiel to take two beautiful branches, carve phrases on them and display them. One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented Joseph’s lineage, the nation of Ephraim. Ezekiel wrote phrases about the two Jewish nations onto the branches and held the two branches together. The action was to indicate that just as the branches could be rejoined, the Israelites could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation.
Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. The competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – began as early as the story of Cain and Abel. We have seen the story played out over and over again. We allow ourselves to be divided by traditions, dress, levels of observance, and politics. We are stronger as a united people.
We live in frightening times which are harder to navigate if we are divided. We witness and experience the Covid-19 epidemic, international terrorism, increasd anti-Semitism, tyrannical dictatorships waging war on its citizens and neighbours, slavery, rising opiad deaths, and bizarre weather related disasters. On the other hand we live in a time with potential for incredible good. Using medical innovation, social network, communication and the sharing of resources, we can create and heal the world.
Just as Joseph and his brothers could forge a better future together, we can do the same. Joseph saved Egypt and its neighbours from starvation through sharing wisdom and strategy- we have the potential to do the same.
With prayers for peace and understanding,
Shabbat Shalom, Laya
The painting “Reunited”, showing Ezekiel writing on a branch, is one of the images in my forthcoming book, “ILLUMINATIONS: The Art of Haftarah”. Stay tuned for more information!
Shabbat Shalom, Laya