What are we to make of Joseph in our Torah portion for this week? Is he a harsh, authoritarian vizier, whose cunning and deceit are designed to stop his brothers in their tracks, forcing them to return to Egypt and expose Benjamin as a thief? We, the readers or listeners to this story, become caught up in two different narratives. Behind the cold strategies that Joseph employs in the sedra, lies our memory of the young Joseph –- seventeen, naïve and precocious, a child who finds love with ease, who gives so much pleasure, who knows intuitively what it is to be loved, to be favoured –- whether by his father, Jacob, or his Egyptian master, Potiphar, or the prison governor who gives him responsibility and status within the prison, or indeed Pharaoh.
What we are never quite certain of about Joseph is whether he knows how to love in return. Nowhere are we told that Joseph loves someone or something. Jacob’s love for Rachel and Joseph is legendary, and we learn of Isaac’s affection and love for his wife Rebekah. But Joseph, torn away from his father and youngest brother, whose mother has died with the birth of her youngest son, Benjamin, has repressed both the love he had experienced and the terrible trauma of abuse by his brothers. When I think of Joseph, I’m reminded of the passage quoted in the Reform Siddur by Ludwig Boerne: ‘Everyone has in his life a beautiful day when he finds love without care and trouble. But when this day is past, you earn love, as you earn bread, by the sweat of your brow.’
It is only through the harrowing tests Joseph imposes on his brothers that he discovers his overwhelming loss and the love that he might have experienced growing up within his family. Planting the silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack is a symbolic act that moves the story from a tale of revenge, to a story about reconciliation and forgiveness and the taking up once again of a precious thread of love between one brother and another, and between a son and his father.
In a similar way, the Rabbis transformed the angular corners of the story of the Maccabees from an account of military victory and nationalistic pride into a more spiritual, more uplifting and universal tale of faith in the goodness of God’s love. One understands something of the courage and determination of the rabbinic movement in the early centuries of our era whose Rabbis were determined to suppress nationalism and violence and draw out the message of hope at Chanukkah.
Is it a coincidence that the Hebrew word for ‘cup’ in the sedra for this week is gav’ia –- the same word that is used to describe the ‘cups’ of the candlestick in the Tabernacle, described in great detail in the Book of Exodus?
Just as the cup of Benjamin brings the brothers back to Joseph and becomes the catalyst helping Joseph to reveal himself to his father’s sons, so too the light of the Chanukkiah at Chanukkah brings out that inner faith in each one of us –- the knowledge that when the world is dark, fractured and broken outside, a glimmer of faith in the eternity and goodness of God will keep us whole and encourage us to see a greater picture of peace and love in the world.
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
(Previously published 2006)
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.