Achievement And Action

Joseph teaches us to use our material success in the service of those who are needy.

Commentary on Parashat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 - 47:27

In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter Joseph, at the peak of his ascent in Egypt, long after having been left for dead by his brothers and ransomed by desert traders. Joseph’s purpose, as Judah approaches him, seems to be concerned with wringing repentance from the siblings who abandoned him.

Now a Man

This once-precocious lad was too much for his brothers to bear in their youth; and now, unrecognizable by his brothers, Joseph has come into his own and made himself a man. He is described in rabbinic midrash as wise, learned, as Joseph the Righteous, and indeed the power he has gained over Egypt is deserved. For our generation of readers, Joseph represents a type of materially and morally successful Diaspora Jew.

But rather than simply embrace his success, it behooves us to delve into the message the Torah gives us, pushing us to understand the story beyond merely material terms. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers he explains, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”

Indeed, what makes the Joseph story so remarkable is not only that Joseph was able to transcend earlier familial strife, move into a foreign culture and rise to a position of great power. Joseph was able to see beyond the narrower perspective of his own success, to see God’s hand in his ascent, and to understand his success as being invested with the commandment to repair the world. In this case, Joseph’s brilliance is given expression in his ability to bring about fraternal reconciliation and to save countless lives with this strategy to confront famine head on.

While the Jewish tradition often places Abraham and Sarah in the role of the Torah’s exemplars of hospitality, Joseph comes through this week as the quintessential diaspora Jew engaged with the well-being of the Jewish and non-Jewish world.

Joseph as Groundmaker

Joseph is the groundbreaker in Jewish communal programs like Mazon, which seek to address the issue of in hunger in America through the venues of Jewish ritual celebration. Mazon, as is well known, asks Jews to donate 3% of the cost of Jewish communal celebrations to the war on hunger in America. It is estimated that throughout the world, 40,000 (mostly children) die of hunger related disease each day. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that nearly 32 million people live in poverty and most-from children to the elderly-face serious hunger each day.

Mazon is just one example of a Jewish organization reaching out its hand from the place of success and ascent in order to repair the world in the tradition of Joseph, seeing its mission as religiously commanded. Thus we may see ourselves, like Joseph, as having been given the privilege to preserve life.

“Tzedek Hillel” programs on college campuses devote much of their social justice work to hunger issues, and Dorot in New York City addresses on an ongoing basis issues of poverty and hunger among the elderly.

The list goes on and on. The point it makes is this: at a time of unprecedented success in American Jewish life, we must not merely celebrate the overall achievement of our community, but also recognize that many are still hungry.

Joseph, by one reading, could have easily forsaken his obligation to others based on the suffering he had experienced earlier in his life. But in transcending his painful past, he was able to reach out the hand of peace to his family, to his Egyptian neighbors and to future generations of readers of Torah. Joseph feeds us with his wisdom. His own actions serve as an inspiration for the command God gives all us in the duty to feed the hungry.

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