Wednesday, 20 Nov 2013

Written by Alasdair Nisbet

The story of Joseph, spread over the next three sidrot, Vayeshev, Mikketz and Vayigash, is an dramatic story unparalleled in the first book of the Torah.  It is full of detail that commentators over the years have found meaning. Just a few examples in Vayeshev are:

Joseph was thrown into a pit “The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” Gen 37:24.  The Sages suggest that as its emptiness is defined as not having water, it was not a sterile hole in the ground but one that had all of the horrors of a dark hole in the desert such as scorpions and snakes.  Poor Joseph sat in the hole while his brothers sat down to a meal.

Along comes a caravan of Ishmaelites “their camels bearing gum, balm and myrrh to be taken to Egypt” Gen 37:25.  The sages suggest that Joseph was being carried, or more likely dragged behind, a sweet smelling cargo befitting his future position in Egypt.

Most of the stories up to this point in the Torah have had God’s speeches but a limited amount of dialogue between the other protagonists.  Now each scene comes to life with dialogue.

In this sidra, we have the heartfelt suffering of Jacob when he learns of Joseph’s death, the discussion of Joseph’s brothers about what to do with him, the simple “lie with me” from Potiphar’s wife and Joseph’s long answer why he wouldn’t, and finally the discussion of the dreams of the butler and baker in prison.

The key to the story, however, comes when Joseph finally meets his brothers again in Egypt and says

“V’atat lo atem shlachtem oti heina ki ha’elohim”

“So it was not you who sent me here, but God” Gen 45:8

The sages seize on this and then look for the evidence of God’s influence through the highs and lows of Joseph’s journey to his exalted position in Egypt.

The journey begins with Joseph being sent by Jacob from the vale of Hebron (emek hevron).  Rashi suggests that as Hebron is on a hill this is a metaphor for the promise of God to Abraham buried in Hebron.  He highlights the double meaning of emek as a valley and depths and then links this to the buried Abraham and God’s prediction that his descendants will be ‘strangers in the land’.

Maimonides looks beyond the metaphor for God’s guiding hand through direct action, pointing to the curious dialogue between Joseph and ish, a man.

“When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man found him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.  Can you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan”.”

Joseph went to Dothan and the rest is history….

Nechama Leibowitz points out that this is an apparent superfluous piece of narrative and asks who was this stranger that opens the dialogue with Joseph?  Some sages speculate that God needed an angel to nudge Joseph back on track. Leibowitz goes on to say that Maimonides “elaborating on the words of our Sages, maintains that the Torah inserts the details of Joseph’s dialogue with the “man” to stress the workings of Divine Providence.  By all accounts, Joseph should have turned back and not found his brothers…..Only the predestined decree of God behind the scenes led him to his brothers.”

This is a profound insight.  I believe that God’s influence in the world comes through us as people.  John Henry Newman uses the phrase “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.” 

Vayeshev highlights that a mystery man is able to achieve so much with so little.  He probably had no idea that his actions had saved Jacob’s family and therefore the Jewish people.

Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend the remembrance service for Kristallnacht at Westminster Abbey.  Those present were reminded through a series of testimonies from survivors that, despite the appalling atrocities carried out on the 9th November 1938, there were individuals who stood up to the tide of evil and tried to do God’s work.  They provided food, defended individuals, or their shops and businesses, and issued visas.  Many of these people are as anonymous as the “man” in this sidra but their brave actions led to the survival of many people that themselves have developed new communities in this country.

This sidra demonstrates that the simple act of redirecting someone like Joseph can lead to a chain of events that achieves God’s plan and changes history for the better.  To carry out God’s work can be dangerous.  It sometimes requires personal courage and determination demonstrated by those righteous people in the days after Kristallnacht.

 It is our actions, however small, that help to do God’s work and it is through our collective action that we repair the world as we say in the Aleinu: l’takkein olam be-malchut Shaddai, the world will be perfected under the sovereignty of the Eternal.

I pray that we too can carry out God’s work and hope that we, like the ‘man’ in this story, can in our small way make all the difference.

Alasdair Nisbet
Chairman of Governors
Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.