Joseph, write home!

The meet up between Judah and Joseph can be reminiscent of other brotherly meetings: Isaac and Yishma’el come to bury Abraham; Jacob and Esau meet on the road after twenty years apart. But in all other cases, the brother meet and walk away, each going to form his own life, his own family, his own nation, often in contrast to the other. Only here, in a most emotional encounter, the brothers meet and rejoin to make one people.
Judah and Joseph are not just two brothers; they also represent two ways of being as humans; two ways of being Jewish. As described elsewhere here, one is a shepherd; his clothing probably simple, functional and not particularly attractive. He feels the burdens of physical life, of working the land, being subject to famine and hunger. The other, a high power minister, ambitious, well-dressed, well-off, making it in the new “man-made” land. The one for whom family is a constant element to care for and be responsible for, and the one who hasn’t written home in more than twenty years. The pioneer of the Land of Israel and the businessman of the diaspora face each other.
Which way is a better way to be Jewish? The answer like so many Jewish answers is “yes”. The debate is as old as this story and spans from them to the relatively new Meir Shalev book, “My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum-cleaner”. Although each of us will drag one of them to “our side” to “prove” that our way works, that our location, customs, learning and on and on is better, more justified, more in tune with our forefathers’ wishes, I see the opposite: in their outward presence, Judah and Joseph symbolize two very different, yet valid ways to be Jewish. If anything, the haftara from Ezekiel (chap 37) makes it even more obvious that it’s not an either or and that only when the two come together, they make the one people.
But ultimately, according to our tradition, we are of Judah’s descendants and there is one thing that might distinguish us: Joseph makes the best of any given situation he is in. The eternal “na’ar”, optimist lad, he remains faithful and he knows that whatever it is “it’s for the best”. All he need to do is just to “ride” the opportunities that come his way. Judah is much more complex and harder to guess; and can’t rely on anything but his own best efforts, trials and error. G-d doesn’t tell him what to do with Joseph at the pit; G-d doesn’t tell him how to treat Tamar. G-d doesn’t even tell him how to speak to Joseph now and what to do next.
Maybe that became who we are. We do our best. We try to be responsible, caring, good, even courageous at times, but ultimately, each move is our best guess for this moment.
Why did Joseph not write home, not even once? The rabbis throughout the ages struggled with this question. The brothers, we already discussed, hated him and “couldn’t see him”, and never even went looking for him – in spite of the great remorse they present this week. Jacob – didn’t know Joseph might be alive, and according to many (based on textual references), his spirit of prophecy vanished due to his extended mourning so since Joseph’s disappearance, he couldn’t even guess or sense that his son is in the area. But what about Joseph himself? He knew he was alive, and he knew where the family lived. Couldn’t he ask Pharaoh for a few days family time and gone to see his father, quietly, at night, while the brothers are out with the flocks somewhere far away, just to give him a little reassurance??
For some reason, I’m reminded of Cat Stevens song. Indeed, I might have had a better answer 20-30 years ago, when I was closer to Joseph’s age and could better understand his desire to start a new life elsewhere, shaking off the burdens of the past, the land that repaid their hard work with a famine; his hateful brothers, his dead mother, and even caring for his aging – and growing unhappy – father. But now I find this the saddest move in Joseph’s life. I don’t think he “sinned” by telling his dreams, as some say; I forgive him for showing off with his fancy coat; I hear his pain when he begs the cudbearer to not forget him; I am with him in his excitement with his new clothes, new name, new job, new wife, new home in the palace. But I’m sorry, Joseph, as a parent I want to tell you, you should have written home. Maybe that too, is a line between Joseph and Judah, and another teaching for who we’re supposed to be.
Shabbat Shalom.

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3 Responses to Joseph, write home!

  1. Nikolaj Wolfson says:

    Dear Michal,

    Thank you and Shabat Shalom.

    Nik Wolfson

  2. neskama says:

    Brilliant Michal…I truly love your perceptions, the way you tell your teachings, the teachings themselves….you are a gem. Are you thinking of putting out any books of weekly parshas? or have you already done so? something to hold in our hands to read on Shabbos? Just thinking out loud….shavuah tov

    Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
    Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

  3. thank you!! no book yet :-).
    I could use an editor to all the torah words I have. anyone?

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