Rabbi Menachem Creditor
An often overlooked message within the Joseph story is Joseph’s own explanation to his brothers of what has happened:
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 45:4–8)”
In other words: The brothers shouldn’t be worried that Joseph will exact revenge — they were not to blame.
What is the theological implication? That this criminal act, perhaps all crime, is ultimately God’s design. What then of accountability, consequence? Free will? Now, of course, we’ve “read the book, and we come out on top” (a la Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical midrash), but Joseph was abducted, assaulted, and jailed. Jacob lost his son. Are we to encounter the story as detached readers, convinced throughout of God’s Plan as the justification for the suffering endured by others? Would we then justify the horror of the Shoah as part of a divine plan that led to the State of Israel? Or Egyptian slavery as the means towards Sinai and freedom? Are we to see suffering as ultimately justifiable, an acceptable means to ends? As a philosophical interpretation of history after the fact (an approach called ‘historiosophy’) this approach — explicitly manifest in Joseph’s words — is incredibly difficult. And offensive. Finding meaning in suffering (an approach pioneered by Shoah Survivor Viktor Frankl) is quite different from justifying it.
Other verses within this week’s Parasha suggest an alternative approach, one which might even redeem God along with Joseph.
According to many translations, Joseph calls his brothers to “Come forward. (Gen. 45:4)” But the Hebrew text is more accurately rendered “Come close to me. And they came close,” which emphasizes that Joseph called his brothers more tenderly, more intimately. Additionally, the context informs us that, before disclosing his identity to his brothers, he sent all the courtiers out of the room. This is paralleled by a rabbinic read of Judah’s actions in the beginning of our Parasha for which the name “VaYigash” derives. The typical translation of Judah’s action is “Judah went up to him”, but the Hebrew word indicates that Judah “Came close.” A midrash suggests that Judah positioned himself in between Joseph (whose true identity remains secret) and the courtiers. Intimacy was the goal — not the navigation of system and hierarchy suggested by the conventional translation.
Similarly, God is more than the biblical text. One definition of God cannot suffice. The challenge of navigating the layers of the Jewish interpretive tradition is exacerbated when the text feels like an impenetrable system. But that’s not what the layers are. Every attempt to understand, to stretch, and to challenge the text is truly an act of relationship, a coming closer for reader, authors, content, and the ultimate dreams. For Jews (and others), this means that the desire to come close to God can foster intimate relationship — with sacred text, with generations of readers and commentators, with self, with a community of fellow seekers, and with the Divine.
Torah is more than words, history holds more than one interpretation, and sacred relationships are precious and inspiring. Life’s paths can be incredibly compelling, sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, and possibly freeing. But in order to find out, we must be brave enough to “come close.”