Navigate to Belief section

Morality Play

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

Liel Leibovitz
December 03, 2010
Right-wing Israeli activists protest within the walls of Jerusalem's Old City on July 12, 2010.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.