Each year, as the winter days get darker, we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. We have just had the darkest night of the month, the new moon of Chanukah – now we are about to pass through the shortest day of the year at the winter solstice. It’s as if the seasons mirror the rhythm of the readings.
Because Joseph’s story is a dark one, for the first time in the Torah, God does not address the protagonist. If God communicates at all, it’s only through dreams, in the dark of the night, and often only through other people’s dreams.
And it’s dark in other obvious ways. Joseph’s brothers hate him for being his father’s favourite. They throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery and tell his father he is dead. When it looks like things couldn’t get much worse, Potiphar’s wife gets him sent to prison. And although he does end up in charge of the other prisoners, and interprets their dreams, he clearly does not inspire affection. The butler who returns to the palace forgets all about him.
Joseph is considered to be a Tzaddik, a righteous person. But he is a Tzaddik in touch with the dark side of life. A Tzaddik who eventually thrives in Egypt, Mitzrayim the narrow place, where actions are limited and constrained. And he brings his family down there, as opposed to Moses, who brings his people out into the light.
I think Joseph is, at this point, a man driven by anger and hurt, and who, in Vayiggash, is wrestling with his anger at his brothers and his estrangement from his family. I think at this darkest time of the year, we too go down into the dark recesses of Joseph’s soul.
Now he finally has his chance to take revenge on the brothers who betrayed him. He certainly plays with them, holding Simeon hostage, sending them off to get Benjamin, placing the cup in Benjamin’s sack, threatening them with death and slavery as they had once plotted to inflict death and slavery on him.
But despite being in a position of great power, he is still strangely vulnerable. His brothers don’t recognise him. His father believes he is dead. He has achieved every possible success in Egypt against the odds, yet it must be hard for him to shake the feeling of rejection. Like all family dynamics the emotions are complicated.
And then, at the very moment of what could be his dark triumph, the light begins to return. Tradition often ascribes the turning-point to Judah’s emotional speech. But I am more interested in Joseph’s response. Joseph decides to transform his anger and turn towards his brothers in true reconciliation.
He says: “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. Now be not grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me hither. It was to save life God sent me ahead of you. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives.”
It’s a huge psychological shift. He takes this enormous betrayal by the people who should have been closest to him and tells them that in fact it was God who intended him to go down to Egypt. He shifts the paradigm completely from one of personal hurt, to a much bigger picture – and he weeps –
“His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear and the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.”
When I first looked at this parashah, I thought it was all about forgiveness. But I’m no longer sure that’s the whole story. Maybe he forgives them maybe he doesn’t. I think what Joseph is doing is acknowledging that while we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. It’s about facing the darkness within us – do we let it consume us or do we take a choice, a hard choice, to let go of the anger? To what extent are we trapped by our own family histories or can we step outside of our hurt and anger and see a bigger picture?
Sometimes it’s anger that drives us to show how well we can do without our family’s help. Maybe it was anger that spurred Joseph to rise and stay at the top of Egypt’s political ladder. Sometimes we are aware that we only are who we are because of all the things that have happened to us, good and bad. And sometimes it’s time to let it go. “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”
They don’t become best friends overnight – they can’t change what has happened, or the fact that they have spent the last 20 years apart, but they do come to an accommodation – to a place where they can live together again. This is a moment of light – it’s not perfect, but sometimes, in the depth of winter, lighting a flame is all you can do.
We are at the darkest part of the solar year. From this Shabbat the days start to get longer and lighter. Joseph did see his father again, and Jacob lived long enough to bless Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, the first brothers in the Bible not to fight or be estranged. Joseph is our archetype for the dark winter months, but the sun will grow stronger, spring will return and with it the story of the Exodus and a stronger, brighter light.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.