December 12, 2013
Making sense of our world -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
We have just finished reading the story of Joseph and his brothers. In it Joseph’s brothers experience confusion, despondency, and powerlessness as their brother secretively manipulates them, falsely accusing them of being spies and thieves. One can imagine being in their shoes and asking: Why? Why are all these terrible things happening? Ultimately their worst nightmare comes true, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin hostage.
We, the readers, see both sides of the story. We see Yosef pulling the strings orchestrating the entire situation. But for the brothers, for the Jewish people of the time, it is one inexplicable tragedy after another. They search their deeds and ask: Why is this happening to us? They blame themselves. Ultimately they engage in self scrutiny, in repentance, in self sacrifice and as people and Jews development themselves from those who sold their brother to those to suffer to save a brother.
With one climactic sentence all the times of pain and confusion collapse into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?” This might not remove all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, and the self blame, but it does, in one fell swoop, make sense of the seemingly nonsensical series of episodes through which they have lived and suffered.
The Rabbis tell us that Yosef and his brothers go down to Egypt to, “pave the way” for the Jewish people’s exile and ultimate redemption; an exile of much darkness and confusion ultimately culminating in exodus, and perhaps, in hindsight, making some meaning of the years of darkness. Perhaps this is one reason the story of Yosef and his brothers is told just before the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, for in it the Jewish people are like Joseph’s brothers.
This all feels a lot like our world. We are Yosef’s brothers too. We live lives that are anything but simple and clear, anything but controllable. Perhaps the lesson is to have hope and faith that ultimately those six words will be spoken, “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive,” and things will come into focus, things will make sense. And through it all not to give in but to utilize the experience as a catalyst for self reflection, and as the brothers and especially Yehudah do, for personal, interpersonal, and religious growth. If we find meaning in the darkness and care for others in it then perhaps we can avoid the strife that led the brothers down to Egypt in the first place. Though redemption is not a solution or an erasing of the exilic past, perhaps it is a making of meaning from the past, and ultimately, through it, we can hear, speedily in our days, the six words of explanation that bring all into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”