Vayeshev – Disengaged
Who was Joseph? A dreamer; an interpreter of dreams. He was especially beloved by his father. He was the object of his brothers’ hatred. He was a slave. He was a ruler. He was a tattle-tale. He was a prison warden. He had grandiose aspirations for himself and he groomed himself to be a pretty boy. If nothing else Joseph was a complex character.
Joseph’s relationship with his father is especially perplexing. When Joseph was in Egypt he never made any attempt to contact his father, to inform him he is alive. Yet he incessantly asked his brothers of their father’s welfare, and his very first words, when he eventually revealed his identity to his brothers, was concerning his father’s wellbeing. Perhaps once Joseph was in prison he did not have the opportunity to post a note to his father, but before that he should have had ample occasion. Joseph had the fortune of being purchased as a slave by one of the ministers in Pharaoh’s administration. A perceptive person himself, this minister recognized the skills and capabilities that Joseph had and he promoted Joseph within his household, eventually appointing him as the head of his estate. At this time Joseph likely could have sent word to his family, but he did not. His father remained in mourning, clueless of Joseph’s plight. When he became viceroy of Egypt this silence continued.
The verse describes Joseph’s rise in stature during his servitude, noting that every aspect of the estate was under Joseph’s instructions. The verse then concludes by stating that “Joseph was of beautiful form and pleasing to look upon.” (Genesis 39:6)
Immediately thereafter the verse describes the lusting of his master’s wife for Joseph. What brought this about? It seems to be directly related to the previous statement of Joseph’s handsome appearance. The sages understand that description as a moral judgment on Joseph. He focused on his appearance, something he had started to engage with while still a youngster in his father’s home. But now this had deleterious effects. Joseph’s obsession over his looks and hairstyle drew the attention of the mistress of the house, and she made advances on him. The Midrash teaches that at the time Joseph was seduced by the wife of his master he would have succumbed to her had not the image of his father appeared before him. The image of his father in his mind, that image that Joseph had previously cast aside, now brought him back to a recognition of who he was.
The Jewish news in recent weeks has been, as usual, filled with all sorts of excitement, both positive and negative. A couple of weeks ago Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely had occasion to speak at Princeton University. Toward the end of her comments the Deputy Minister pointed out that it might be difficult for Jewish American students to relate to the daily challenges of Israelis, given their more comfortable lifestyle and (significantly) lower participation in the military. Despite the objective truth of her comments, and despite its gentle presentation without any accusatory tone, this comment sparked outrage from many Jews who chose to take offense. The complaints came fast and furious from these “comfortable” Jews. Hotovely was reprimanded by the Prime Minister’s office and – wise woman that she is – she dutifully apologized for her comments. The Prime Minister distanced himself from Hotovely’s message, as it was politically unproductive for him. Yet, over the next few days it was reported that the Prime Minister, in private conversations, was himself dismissive of the influence of the broader progressive Jewish community in the US, saying that they will be gone within two generations. This caused more outrage from same population.
So here we are, with statements that are painfully true, yet we are in denial. The polls all show increasing disengagement of secular and progressive Jews from Jewish activities and identity. Denying it is not going to make this truth go away. Between low birthrates and the hemorrhaging defections from an apathetic younger generation there is unlikely to be a significant Jewish Reform presence in two generations. The Jews who visit Israel, who make Aliyah to Israel, who engage in Jewish affiliated activities, Jewish education and Jewish culture, are not from that demographic. Fewer of us care (until someone points this out, at which point we become offended that someone would suggest such a thing). We are Joseph, having left our father’s home in unpleasant circumstances. We bear the emotional scars of rejection, of internal strife, of jealousy and what not. We are dreamers, CEOs, slaves of our hedonistic society, rulers over our respective dominions. We lobby, legislate, enforce, submit, all in the context of a Diaspora and a location foreign to our traditional anchors. We have not kept up with our relationship, we have not sent a note or message to our Father, keeping Him informed of our wellbeing and circumstances. At the same time we are beset with temptations and seduction within our broader society, pulling us further away, demanding compromises on our traditions and the values of our heritage. How will we muster the fortitude to overcome this?
Joseph, on his own, had no tools to withstand these challenges. It was only the image of his father, that reminder of his roots and identity, that saved him from disappearing off the map of Israel. The proof will be in the pudding. If, in two generations, our progeny still identifies as Jews, still remain faithful to our heritage and destiny, it is because we have looked back to our past, have captured the image of our ancestry and charted our course in accordance with these lessons.