By Rabbi Bennett Miller
We are in the midst of one of the most powerful episodes in the Torah. The narrative reveals a continuation of the story of Joseph, his brothers, Egypt, and Jacob’s entire family. Few Biblical events have been told with greater human drama.
The Joseph story is certainly a Jewish story, for we find dreamers and dreams, brothers in need of each other, the Promised Land and the land of our Dispersion. In a very real way, the story of Joseph and his brothers is the story of the Jewish people. Here’s what I mean:
- Like his forefathers, Joseph is a dreamer; he can see the how the future will be played out as he experiences and interprets his dreams and the dreams of those around him.
- Joseph and his brothers need each other; they are connected to one another by physical and material support, and even more significantly, by emotional and spiritual support.
- His experience in Egypt is one in which Joseph plays a key role to ensure prosperity in good times and to care for the needy and impoverished during periods of economic stress. This and more can be found in the text; the Joseph story represents not just one weekly parasha – it occupies nearly a third of the Book of Bereshit!
Joseph is the paradigm of the Jew and of the Jewish people. We are dreamers. We dream of living in a world where God’s presence can be felt, where justice and compassion, mercy and loving kindness abound. The mission of the Jewish people is to bring light to a world that is often darkened by hatred, envy, and idolatry. Our privilege is to be God’s hands and arms and eyes and ears and help fashion a world worthy of the Divine.
We are a people who need one another. Our experience has taught us that all Jews are connected to each other and depend on each other for our sustainability, not just materially but spiritually as well.
A powerful example of what I mean: A few weeks ago, 16 members of the Israel Defense Forces, together with their therapists, spent a week with our congregation and community. These young soldiers had completed their required military service and were now in the active Reserves of the IDF. While serving, they (like many soldiers in the IDF and also in the US Military) suffered trauma of some kind, like the death of a fellow soldier or a significant combat episode. Although they have returned to functioning in society on a day to day basis, there is also recognition that the trauma stays with them unless it is addressed through appropriate therapy.
For that week, the IDF soldiers lived with families in our congregation. In the mornings, they engaged in trauma therapy; in the afternoons they went on trips or met with Jewish groups in the community; in the afternoons and evenings they engaged our youth and our adults in discussions about what it means to be Jewish, what it means to represent Israel as soldiers, and how American Jews feel grateful for the sacrifice these soldiers make on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people throughout the world. On Shabbat, they worshipped with us and studied Torah with us as well. I cannot adequately express the powerful impact they had on us and our community and the similar impact we had on them. They are no longer Israeli soldiers; they are our brothers and our sons, our cousins, and our friends.
Joseph and his brothers needed each other too. Regardless of personal feelings, and even differences of opinion about the sense of their relationships, Joseph and his brothers ultimately discover the power and the importance of the bond between them. Israelis and Jews living in the Diaspora have a similar bond, one that ties them tightly to one another in good times and in times of stress. No other people share such a bond that links one another together throughout the centuries. That bond is the ARZA story as well. For ARZA connects Reform Jews in Israel and Reform Jews in America in strong and powerful ways.
The role that Joseph plays in Egypt is not one that enables him to rise up the social strata for his own personal aggrandizement. No, Joseph’s position in Egyptian society is one in which he acquires a respected status because of the way in which he guides Egypt through its time of economic growth and its days of economic stress. As a result, he qualifies as a true and respected leader for the entire nation. This, too, reflects the story of the Jewish people, for wherever we have been welcomed we have contributed powerfully and meaningfully to society, we have made contributions far in excess of our numbers, and we have brought kindness and generosity, goodness, and justice, and peace to all.
The Joseph story, a paradigm for the meaning of being dreamers, being brothers who need each other, and being contributors to a better world. It’s the Jewish people’s story, powerfully told! May we always be bound together!
Rabbi Bennett Miller is Senior Rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ and President of ARZA.