Don’t let Joseph’s mistakes blind you to God’s message

By Rabbi Ben Sternman

We are almost at the end of Bereisheet, the Book of Genesis, in Parashat Vayigash, and in this week’s Torah portion we witness the climactic reunion between Joseph and his entire family. This should be a heartwarming section, but somehow I’m always disturbed by parts of it, so much so that on balance I’m left uneasy.
Toward the beginning, Joseph is unrecognizable to his brothers as Pharaoh’s highest official and it seems as if he’s almost taunting them with the way that he treats them. Finally, he loses control and reveals his identity to his brothers, who stand dumbstruck and in fear before him. Joseph comforts them and reassures them that their selling him into slavery was all part of God’s plan. Genesis 45:7-8 states in part: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” It was God’s plan and not their fault.
I have a hard time accepting this explanation because it ignores human free will. Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery, and fake his death to the deep distress of their father, but they’re not to blame because it was all part of God’s plan? Are we to accept all the bad choices that human beings make, dismissing them as “all part of God’s plan”? Perhaps what happened to Joseph was not God’s plan, but God salvaging the best outcome possible after the hash his brothers made of the situation. I have difficulty dismissing the evil that we humans do, the poor choices that we make, as necessary to bring about God’s plan.
I am also disturbed at the end of the Torah portion by how Joseph treats the Egyptians. Joseph, on behalf of Pharaoh, has cornered the market on grain over the previous seven years of plenty and is now selling that grain during the terrible famine Egypt and the world was experiencing. In order to survive, the Egyptian people use all their money to buy food from Joseph and then sell all their livestock to Joseph too. Finally they declare to Joseph (Genesis 47:19 in part), “Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh…” Joseph is using a natural disaster to gouge the Egyptians and turn them into slaves.
I remember hearing news reports in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, that some people decided to price-gouge bottled water, food, and gasoline to profit from the storm. The Texas Attorney General’s office investigated those reports and took appropriate actions to prevent this type of profiteering. Isn’t what Joseph did just as bad if not worse, forcing free people into slavery just to survive?
The real question is what do we do with sacred texts that leave us disturbed. One might be tempted to just throw it out and ignore it, dismissing the text as corrupted over time by fallible human beings. But I resist that temptation because I believe that God is speaking to us through the text. Rather, I prefer to reinterpret the text, seeking God’s message within it, as Ben Bag Bag urges us in Pirkei Avot 5:22, “turn it and turn it, since everything is in it.”
No matter how I turn it, though, I can’t seem to reinterpret Joseph’s price-gouging in a positive way. In those cases I must satisfy myself with learning what not to do from Joseph’s poor choices. But whether I reinterpret the text or learn what not to do, I can never bring myself to dismiss the text and close myself off from listening for God’s message.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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