We would expect Joseph to be furious with his brothers. Several parashiyot ago we hear them say “come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!”*1*
It is only thanks to Reuben and Judah’s desperate intervention that Joseph is sold into slavery instead.
Even though things eventually turn out pretty good for Joseph, just try, for a moment, to imagine what it must have been like for him when his brothers threw him into that pit so many years ago. Imagine the insults they must have shouted. The taunts. The hatred.
Even if, physically, Joseph comes out on top, I can’t imagine the emotional trauma that a younger brother would experience when his older siblings abuse him like that. We would expect that rejection to stick with Joseph throughout his life.
That is why his reaction to his brothers in this morning’s Torah portion is so remarkable.
When he finally reveals himself, listen to what he says: “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… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth… it was not you who sent me here, but God…”*2*
Just contrast Joseph’s attitude to the brothers’ attitude years before. They are extremely short-sighted. They are thinking only in the moment. Here is this annoying little brother of ours. He thinks he’s so great. Just look at that ornamented tunic that he is always prancing about in. Father loves him best.
The brothers are stuck in their own anger, in the moment. When they act, they don’t consider the repercussions.
Not so Joseph. He is focused on the big picture. If there are any leftover emotions of anger, or desire for revenge, we do not see them.
Instead of his brothers comforting him and apologizing to him, it is Joseph who is doing the comforting! They don’t even have a chance to apologize. He absolves them of guilt, explaining their horrible behavior as God’s plan. It had to happen that way so that Joseph could be brought to Egypt, become vizier to Pharaoh, and save their lives.
The entire Joseph story is marked by peaks and valleys. Joseph rises to the top, and then is cast down, only to rise again in most remarkable fashion. We see this pattern repeat itself in his father’s house, Potiphar’s estate, and Pharaoh’s court. Throughout, Joseph sees the active hand of God in his life. We, the readers, do not see God’s direct intervention in Joseph’s life at any point in this story.
It is Joseph himself who connects the dots. He chooses to see a pattern in the random events that befall him. That pattern points to a Divine purpose. A purpose that is first foretold in his boyhood dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. Now we discover that those dreams have been fulfilled, in the most extraordinary way.
Unlike the rest of the Book of Genesis, in which God’s hand is much more apparent, the Joseph saga is like the world we know. We, like Joseph and his brothers, choose how to see the peaks and valleys of our lives.
Are they a series of random dots, ultimately patternless and meaningless. Are we alone to make decisions by ourselves? When outside forces impinge on our lives for good or for bad, are they essentially random and unpredictable?
Or, do we connect those dots in a way that points to a purpose for our existence? Do we see the things that happen to us in the context of Jewish history? Do Jewish beliefs, traditions, and practices help us contextualize the blessings and tragedies that we all face? In short, is God involved in a purposeful way in our lives?
I got some ideas from a D’var Torah called Unanticipated Consequences, by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor and Director of Community Engagement for the Jewish Theological Seminary