For the week of January 14, 2006 / 14 Tevet 5766
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Kings 2:1-12
But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:19-21)
The interaction between Joseph and his brothers shortly after the passing of their father, Jacob, is one of the most striking interpersonal stories in the Bible. Joseph had every reason to seek revenge upon his brothers, whom, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery. Through God's intervention, after years of slavery and imprisonment, Joseph rose to great power in Egypt. Joseph's God-given dreams, which were part of the cause of his brothers' animosity towards him, had come to pass before his eyes. Joseph had indeed become ruler even over his own family.
Out of fear of Joseph's wrath, the brothers concocted a story, saying that their father had requested that Joseph pardon them for their wrongdoings. Joseph was heartbroken that after all that he had done for them, they didn't trust him. Before Joseph responded to his brothers' fabrication, they came to him, threw themselves at his feet, and offered themselves as his slaves. Joseph had complete power over his old adversaries. He could have done to them whatever he wished, but instead he was merciful and continued to pledge generosity.
When reading a story, it is easy to quickly gloss over the most unusual and dramatic events. In order to fully appreciate what Joseph did, we need to stop and try to put ourselves in his situation. This may be harder than it sounds, since so few of us have never been in a situation close to his. Then again, maybe we have. How many of us have been betrayed by those closest to us? How many have been hurt because of someone else's jealously or selfishness? How many of us believed we have been destined for great things, only to encounter circumstances that have seemed to derail every opportunity before us? How many of us are in situations right now that seem hopeless? We may not be slaves or in prison (or perhaps you are), but you are in despair nonetheless. Maybe you are not in despair, you might simply be numb, having learned to cope with profound discouragement. You might be in a good place right now. Circumstances were difficult, but things have turned out well after all - no thanks to those who opposed you in the past. You may not be in a powerful situation such as Joseph was, but you are on top of your own mountain, so to speak, finally having some sense of power and control.
While not everyone goes through Joseph's experiences, they are actually to some extent quite common. The fact that he "spoke kindly to them" is a far greater thing than we might think at first. Let's face it. How many of us would be so free of bitterness in a situation like his?
In seeking to understand how Joseph could relate to his brothers in this way, there is a short statement he makes that might be a clue to his remarkable attitude. After they threw themselves at his feet, his response was, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?" Joseph understood the difference between his place and God's place in life. Even though he had the power to harm his brothers, he knew that to do so, would be to cross into a realm that was not his. Even though his brothers intended to harm him, Joseph recognized that God had been at work in his dismal circumstances to do much good. For Joseph to take personal revenge would be to take matters into his own hands. Recognizing what God had been doing, he accepted the role that God had given him, including the need to care for his extended family. To do otherwise would be to take God's place.
Joseph's acceptance of his place in life does not mean that he did not feel the sting of wrongs done to him. It just means that he was willing to recognize that God alone is God and that certain things are his prerogative. Joseph's willingness to cooperate with the Master of the Universe brought him great personal freedom, allowed him to function as the great leader he had become, and be God's chosen channel of mercy to not only his own family, but to Egypt and the surrounding region.
I wonder how many of us miss our God-given destiny due to a failure to accept our place in life. I wonder how much harm we have caused when we have taken God's place. If that is the case, it is not too late to recognize it. As we do, I have a feeling that how we see life, ourselves, and God himself will radically change.
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