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Morality Play

Israelis, as a new survey shows, could learn a thing or two from the Joseph of this week’s parasha

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Right-wing Israeli activists protest within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City on July 12, 2010. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Joseph, the protagonist of this week’s parasha, is often referred to as Yosef Ha’Tzadik, or Joseph the righteous. As a young man, I found the honorific baffling: What, I wondered, had Joseph done to deserve this designation?

This week’s Torah portion certainly seems to supply little by way of explanation. After failing to succumb to the come-hithers of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph ends up in jail, pulls off an impressive feat of dream deciphering, is released, and ends up marrying Potiphar’s daughter. Wealthy and renowned, he enjoys life; that is, until his siblings show up. With conditions in Canaan sliding toward famine, the brothers arrive in search of grain, failing to recognize their long-lost sibling. But Joseph recognizes them and promptly accuses them of being spies. We’re here for the grain, they say. Spies, Joseph insists. To prove their identity, he demands that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin. This breaks Jacob’s heart—having already lost his beloved Joseph, the aged paterfamilias wants to keep his littlest one by his side. Between starvation and sacrifice, he chooses the latter, and Benjamin joins his brothers on a trip to Egypt. There, Joseph plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, accuses him of thievery, and announces that Benjamin must now become his slave.

This convoluted tale, of course, has a happy ending. In next week’s parasha, we read how Judah stood up for young Benjamin and offered himself as a servant instead, and of how Joseph, moved by this act of selflessness, revealed his true identity and returned to his family’s fold. But this week, it must be said, Joseph the Righteous comes off as a bit of a jerk.

True, his brothers did throw him into a deep, dark hole, sold him to a caravan of traveling merchants, and told everyone he was dead. But isn’t it a righteous man’s job to forgive and forget? And if that is the case, why did Joseph toy with his brothers in their hour of need, especially when doing so caused a great deal of anguish to the grieving Jacob? Why not repay their wickedness with kindness? Why not show them the quality of mercy?

The rabbis, as is their wont, have provided numerous explanations for this conundrum, many revolving around the idea that Joseph, like all righteous men, was an instrument of God, and that like every instrument of God, his actions were directed from above. But there is, I think, another, far more earthly explanation, one that interprets Joseph’s actions as a masterstroke of moral leadership—the only way to rid his brothers of their evil ways, he realizes, is to create a crisis and allow them the opportunity to do the right thing. Had he simply revealed himself to Judah and the gang, Joseph might’ve had the satisfaction of casting himself as their redeemer, but by allowing them to stand up for Benjamin as they had failed to do for him, Joseph gave his brothers the precious gift of learning how to redeem themselves. In so doing, he taught them the value both of personal and communal responsibility. The ability to forgo the facile satisfaction of magnanimity and the appeal of swift resolutions and opt instead for a harsh but necessary lesson in accountability and grace, that is the mark of a truly righteous man.

A comprehensive new survey released this week in Israel, however, shows that the Jewish state may be drifting away from this very value. Conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute—a non-partisan, much-respected, Jerusalem-based think tank—the survey, The 2010 Israeli Democracy Index, features some findings that should deeply upset anyone concerned with Israel’s future. In contrast with Joseph’s impressive ethical example, no fewer than 60 percent of respondents replied that appointing a few, strong leaders would serve Israel better than legislation, debate, and all the other pesky mechanisms of democracy. Eighty-six percent said they believed that critical decisions should be made by the state’s Jewish majority alone, as opposed to by a plurality of its citizens, regardless of creed. Thirty percent saw violence as a justified means by which to achieve political ends.

To be sure, not all is grim: The survey did find some improvement in various, important fields, as well as an overall commitment to the tenets of democracy. But it also made clear that Israelis are becoming increasingly angry about the existential problems they face daily, and, in some cases, increasingly prone to considering drastic solutions: Fifty-three percent of Jewish respondents said the state was entitled to encourage the emigration of Israeli Arabs, and 46 percent supported the assertion that anyone expressing anti-Zionist views should be penalized.

And the personal, the study revealed, was very much political: Forty-six percent of Jewish respondents admitted to being “most bothered” by the possibility of having Arabs as neighbors, followed closely by people with mental illness and foreign workers (each at 39 percent); same-sex couples (25 percent); ultra-Orthodox Jews (23 percent); Ethiopian Jews (17 percent); folks who do not observe the Sabbath (10 percent); and immigrants from the former Soviet Union (8 percent). The situation was even worse among Israeli-Arab respondents, 70 percent of whom found the idea of living next door to a same-sex couple deeply troubling.

As we read about Joseph and his brothers, let us recall that these men, the heads of the Twelve Tribes, are the founding fathers of the Jewish nation. Twice do we see these vaunted men in action: the first time as they succumb to their envy and rage, betray Joseph, and cover up their crime, and the second as they unite to defend Benjamin, support one another, and tell the truth. Their journey is one that takes them from urge to reason and from cowardice and petulance to moral seriousness. Judging by the new survey’s results, we still have a great distance to travel if we’re to catch up.

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J Carpenter says:

Thank you for the insight on the Joseph story; I appreciate your weekly sermons. Blessings—

Hi guys,
thanks for adding that spirit of Tzedek tzedek tirdof that is so missing in Israeli clerical thinking. And this I say as someone living in Israel. Continue the good job!
Dov

Chumpsky says:

Very nice. G-d willing we should all be blessed to be on the same page as Hashem.

The interpretation of Joseph’s parsha is superb, original. The connection to the Israel Democracy Institute survey is artificial and destroys the beauty of the parsha commentary one just read.

Assume the people 100% will be happy to see same sex couple as neighbors, does it mean we live up to standards of biblical Joseph ? Then, there no 100% agreement on anything in any survey. So what the survey results should be, in order for us to say, yes, we assimilated all the moral of Joseph parsha? (my favorite parsha after seeing Josef and his colorful coat rock opera in the 60s).

There is no answer to this question as there is no answer on pointing on calendar when the Mossiach will come. There is a beauty in the open ended interpretation,any mundane details destroy the belief, that we have a moral compass, that’s all.

“Assume the people 100% will be happy to see same sex couple as neighbors, does it mean we live up to standards of biblical Joseph ? Then, there no 100% agreement on anything in any survey. So what the survey results should be, in order for us to say, yes, we assimilated all the moral of Joseph parsha?”

You can read statistic in many different ways. I chose to view what I believe is moral in them and discard what I find off. As Mark Twain said;
“There are lies, damn lies and statistics. Like I said before may we all be blessed to be on the same page with G-d (and not twist His Holy Truth into a pretzel.)

May you all have a blessed shabbos and Freilicht Chanuka!

Bennett Muraskin says:

The flaw in Liel Liebovitz’ interpretation is that Benjamin was born after Joseph’s other brothers sold him into slavery. Being guiltless, there was no reason Joseph should have made him suffer.

And what makes Joseph so righteous? Wasn’t he responsible for reducing the Egyptian peasantry to serfdom? For Pharoah’s benefit no less?

Ken Besig, Israel says:

Yosef was a great manager, whether working for his father Yaakov, his Egyptian overlord Potifar, even when he was sitting in jail assisting the Pharaoh’s Wine Steward and Chief Chef he managed pretty well, and of course his service to Pharaoh was unstinting.
Unfortunately Yosef was also a lousy son to Yaakov. Not only did he misinform on his brother’s, accusing them of averot and hijinks that they hadn’t even committed, he also failed to even bother to inform his father that he was alive and well in Egypt.
Yosef had many opportunities, including his service with Potifar and even in jail to send word to his father Yaakov that he was okay. Certainly when he became the right hand of Pharaoh he had the power and the means of letting Yaakov know he was alive, well, and wildly successful. Indeed, even when he knew from his brothers that times and meals were tough in Canaan for his entire family, including his aged father, he not only fails to simply send sustenance and information to Yaakov, he even takes Yaakov’s now favorite child a prisoner further subjecting Yaakov to even greater misery.
Yosef was deeply flawed certainly in terms of the mitzvah to honor one’s father and mother. Yes Yosef had his finer qualities, but he treated his father pretty miserably.
But all things considered, I am pretty sure that even Yosef would have balked at having a same sex Jewish couple living near him.

“And what makes Joseph so righteous? Wasn’t he responsible for reducing the Egyptian peasantry to serfdom? For Pharoah’s benefit no less?”

Actually those that were reduced to serfdom were the nobility of Egypt according to the Hebrew terminology. This also apparent were we see that first they sold cattle and land before selling themselves. Egyptian peasants were hardly land owner or owners of large amounts of live stock.

What made Joseph righteous was his effort at the tender age of 17 (and bursting with hormones and good looks to boot) and yet not to lay a hand on another man’s wife. This is according to the interpretations of Chazal. Of course sustaining a country through a famine and savings millions of lives certain could make me think of anyone as righteous.

A

Liel masterful interpretation pf Joseph parsha is summarized here, in his own words:

“Joseph’s actions as a masterstroke of moral leadership— the only way to rid his brothers of their evil ways, he realizes, is to create a crisis and allow them the opportunity to do the right thing. Had he simply revealed himself to Judah and the gang, Joseph might’ve had the satisfaction of casting himself as their redeemer, but by allowing them to stand up for Benjamin as they had failed to do for him, Joseph gave his brothers the precious gift of learning how to redeem themselves.”

This is equivalent to give to charity and remain anonymous, which is the highest level of charity according to Maimonides. This also can turn lives around from evil to faith.

Bennett Muraskin says:

PS Joseph is a mythical character. Just like every character in the Bible until King David.

That said, where does it say that only the nobility were reduced to serfdom? The peasantry were left alone? Are you kidding? Who says that peasants can’t own land or livestock?

Genesis 47:20 says “So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine ws too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharoah. And he removed the population town by town from one end of Egypt’s border to the othere. Only the land of the priests he did not take over…”

Any questions?

Benjamin was not born after Joseph was sold into slavery.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

@Bennett, Genesis 47:20 interpretation, or non-interpretation as you choose to serve the meat raw – is a typical example of reading the Tanach literally. Judging by the standards of today a behavior completely normal three millenniums ago, is abominable. We can argue for days and years whether Joseph was real or not. It does not really matter. What it matters the entire code of ethics our tradition extracted and refined from Joseph story. They were an infinite number of atrocities in those times, that were never recorded. It was the standard method of amassing a fortune (and if look at the biographies of many wealthy people even today some parts of they story are troubling). The question is how to sublimate evil into goodness? Oyr tradition thought this is possible.

The story is dual. Did Joseph brothers converted Joseph’s evil into goodness, or did Joseph transformed his brothers into righteous people? Both interpretations are true, in my faith

I enjoyed these words of Torah. They teach a great lesson.

Chumpsky says:

“That said, where does it say that only the nobility were reduced to serfdom? The peasantry were left alone? Are you kidding? Who says that peasants can’t own land or livestock?

Genesis 47:20 says “So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine ws too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharoah. And he removed the population town by town from one end of Egypt’s border to the othere. Only the land of the priests he did not take over…”

Any questions?”

Yes, one question. Have you ever read about ancient Egypt? The “peasants” in the time of ancient Egypt were little more than indenture servants (share croppers at best.) Land, livestock and money was certainly not attainable under those conditions for “peasants.” To view this chapter correctly you must see it through the eyes of a feudal society and not an open democracy.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Joseph served Pharoah, an oppressive ruler, and worked hard to make him a more oppressive ruler. That’s a Jewish hero?

I agree that “judging by the standards of today, a behavior completely normal three millenniums ago is abominable.” That is precisely my point.

As for Benjamim, since he was entirely innocent of his brother’s crimes against Joseph, so why should he be made to suffer for them?

“As for Benjamin, since he was entirely innocent of his brother’s crimes against Joseph, so why should he be made to suffer for them?”

Because it was prophecy & Joseph being a prophet was under the obligation of carrying our G-d’s message to him.

Bennett Muraskin says:

God must be cruel then.

“God must be cruel then.”

I used to think the same about my parents until I got older and had children.

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Morality Play

Israelis, as a new survey shows, could learn a thing or two from the Joseph of this week’s parasha

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