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Message from Rabbi Berman

The Joseph Challenge


     We started reading the Joseph stories in our Torah before the end of December, and we continue this month. The weekly readings of Vayeishev, MiKetz, VaYigash, and Va’y’hi, taken together, is the longest narrative in the Torah. Many have called it the “first novel”. Ever. And it has everything you want in a great story. Family intrigue, plot twists, deceit, slavery, attempts at seduction, cat-and-mouse games and our righteous hero going from the pits of an Egyptian jail to practically ruling the most powerful nation in the world. But the climax isn’t when our young Hebrew moves from being a slave in a pit to being vice-Pharaoh; it’s the family reunion, with all its shocks and tears, restoring a brother to his kin, and specifically to his father. Move over Cinderella, this is a much better story! It’s a great story, but unfortunately, a lot of people are not conversant in it. Why is that?

     It seems that there are many among us who think of biblical stories as fodder for children. Not coincidentally, many of us stopped learning about them at a young age, and may never have experienced the kind of spiritual and intellectual stimulation available to adult readers of the Bible. Most of us who went through a Jewish education, myself included, couldn’t wait for it to be over. In fact, when I went off to college, I just about stopped being involved in Jewish activities for almost twenty years.

     People ask me frequently, what was it that put me back on the path toward eventually getting ordination from the Jerusalem branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary? Well, one thing was the Joseph story. If ever there was a way back in to Torah study, and the keen insight into the adult human condition that it provides, it is Joseph. Every time I read it something pops out at me that I just never saw before. Frankly I wonder how it never became a serious film.

     It was my father’s favorite story, because no matter how Joseph is tried, he does not give up, and he never forgets who he is and where he came from. And when I did read it, as an adult, I was just floored by the beauty and complexity of the story, but mostly just by the humanity of the characters. These flawed people are our ancestors, and they are worthy of our attention, and even our love. It is in the light of peering across the millennia to this mirror of human nature, that I ask you to consider the following.

     I’m asking you to read the story. Get a good translation—Etz Hayim, Everett Fox, Robert Alter, whatever—and read the Joseph story from chapter 37 of Genesis to the end of the book. And think about this when you get to the cliffhanger parts (will Joseph be saved from the pit? Will he succumb to Mrs. Potiphar? Will the cupbearer remember him? Will Benjamin be taken into captivity? How will Joseph reveal himself? What will happen when Jacob dies? What might have happened if even one of our ancestors had acted differently? What would happen, for example, if Judah hadn’t become a mensch and pleaded for Benjamin, as he does at the beginning of VaYigash, the first parsha we read in January?

     And once you’ve done that, tell me your next thought. Send me an email telling me how you think it would have happened if there were changes along the way. Let’s talk about it. It’s a way of seeing the puzzle, the complexities of this story, and its place in our long, strange and winding history. Are you up for it? I’m serious. I want you to read the story, and think about alternatives and possibilities, no matter how insignificant you think they are, and write me with them. Or better still, come to Early Torah Study on January 4, 2020.

     I look forward to hearing from you.

See you in shul,