Torah Reading: Genesis: 44:18 to 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28.
Greetings - I'm honored to have been asked to write the D'var Torah for this week! My name is Eowyn9 and I'm the author of my poetry blog, An Advent Canticle, at Daily Kos.
Today I will be focusing on the reading from Genesis, the final part of Joseph's story.
Last week's reading concluded on a cliffhanger! The silver cup has just been found in Benjamin's sack, the brothers have been dragged back by Joseph's steward, and Joseph is threatening to make Benjamin his slave for life (the other brothers, innocent of the supposed theft, will be allowed to return.) Judah -- yes, the same Judah who first proposed selling Joseph into slavery, and who ordered that his daughter-in-law be burned for her supposed prostitution -- goes up to Joseph and begs him to release Benjamin, and let him (Judah) become Joseph's slave instead.
At this point, Joseph can no longer contain himself. He tells all his attendants to leave the room so that he and the brothers are alone, and he weeps so loudly that everyone can hear. Then he finally declares his true identity: he is Joseph, who the brothers sold into slavery so many years ago. Yet though they intended evil to him, God has changed it to good: because Joseph was sold into Egypt, he will be able to save the brothers and Jacob from the five years of famine to follow. He urges the brothers to go back, tell his father that he is alive, and move the entire household to Egypt. And the brothers (though at first terrified) embrace him and they all weep.
At first Jacob doesn't believe the good news, but when they tell the whole story and he sees the carts that Joseph has sent to move the family, he is convinced. The household (sixty-seven family members in total) set out. Jacob offers sacrifices to God at Beersheba, and God speaks to him, confirming that he is to go to Egypt. Finally they arrive in Goshen, where the Israelites are to settle, and Jacob and Joseph are at long last reunited.
The reading concludes with a description of how Joseph manages the grain reserves during the remaining years of famine: he sells the grain to Egyptians, first for money, then (when this is gone), for their livestock and finally for their land itself. Thus all of Egypt's land becomes, technically, the personal property of the Pharaoh (except for the land of the priests) and a one-fifth tax on the crop is put into place for future years. The Israelites settle in Goshen, and "they acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number."
The first scene of today's reading is one of the greatest revelation moments in all of literature. Tension has been strained to the breaking point: the cup has been found in Benjamin's sack, the brothers are in near-total despair, and Judah himself is begging the man he sold into slavery to make him (Judah) his slave. And then Joseph declares the truth.
Reading this scene, I am reminded of another great revelation scene in classical literature: the climax of Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus has just returned from his long wanderings to find his wife Penelope surrounded by unwelcome suitors who are forcing her to choose one of them as a new husband. He sneaks in (disguised as an old beggar man), wins the archery contest that Penelope has designed -- as he is the only one who can bend Odysseus' great bow and shoot it through twelve axeheads -- and then turns on the suitors, slaying them one by one with the great bow in an epic battle. In contrast, Joseph uses his secret identity to bring about reconciliation instead of revenge.
I had discussed the motives behind Joseph's intricate manipulations in a comment on last week's Genesis reading. Joseph is often portrayed as cruelly tormenting the brothers in revenge, using his position of power to play a "cat and mouse" game. Alternatively, he is wisely "testing" them to make sure they've reformed. Yet this supposed callousness or cool distance is at odds with Joseph's barely controlled tears and genuine emotional distress.
In contrast, I think Joseph's motives are much more human: mixed, confused and probably even irrational. He wants to see Benjamin again, and his father, and to help his family survive the famine. A part of him probably does harbour dreams of revenge -- or at least to see his brothers groveling before him.
But I think a large part of what drives Joseph in these scenes is the human need for acceptance. What is worse than being sold as a slave? Being sold as a slave by your own family. Knowing that all ten of your older brothers, who you look up to and admire, hate you so much that they want you either dead, or gone for good. Joseph, desperate to be accepted back into the family circle, can't bear to simply give the brothers assistance and send them on their way. He wants to keep them wondering, and coming back; he just can't let go of them and his birth family. And on some level he must still be terrified of these men who once threw him in a pit and threatened to kill him, and he wants to make very sure that he can trust them before he tells them the truth. Though he may be the second-highest in the whole land of Egypt, at this moment he is just a rejected and frightened little boy.
One of the most fascinating points about this section of Joseph's story is the new singling out of a "special" brother, Benjamin. Benjamin has been marked out already by his father Jacob: the other brothers are to keep him safe, at all costs. When Joseph first sees Benjamin, he needs to quickly leave the room because he cannot stop himself from weeping. At the feast, Benjamin is given five times as much food as everyone else (one wonders how he manages to eat it all!) And then Joseph's silver cup is placed in his sack (like, earlier, the silver in the brothers' sacks). A mark of distinction? A special gift? No: the cup will doom Benjamin, like Joseph before him, to the life of a slave.
Joseph is saying to the brothers, "Look, here's the perfect chance to finish what you started twenty years ago. Get rid of the other "special" brother, the favoured one, Rachel's son. Leave him behind as a slave in Egypt and go back to your father -- now nobody will compete with you for his attention and love."
And yet the brothers refuse the bait. They are devastated at the thought of losing Benjamin (or, at least, of what it will do to their father), and Judah even offers himself as a slave in Benjamin's place. At this point, Joseph knows that the brothers have truly left behind their petty rivalries, and he reveals himself.
One of my favorite things about this scene is Joseph's weeping, so loud "that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it." In our culture we have (quite unhealthy) ideas about what emotions men are and are not supposed to display. Truly "manly" men aren't supposed to cry, even when truly moved. They definitely aren't supposed to bawl so loud that the whole house hears them! And yet, Joseph "threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them." These beautiful touches and very human characters are one of the most amazing things about the Torah's stories for me.