One of the questions the Rabbis over the centuries have asked is “Why did Joseph, during the 21 years he lived in Egypt, never try to contact his father?” For the first years, we can understand that Joseph was a slave, a servant in Potiphar’s home and then a prisoner in jail. But after his rise to power, when Joseph could do almost whatever he wanted to do, why did he not contact his father?
The Rabbis never really settle the issue because the Rabbis themselves can’t understand how a young man, torn from his family, would not seek to contact his father as soon as he was able. But we modern readers of the tale may see a different take on the story. We can imagine Joseph, kidnapped and sold to slave traders, telling his captor’s “You guys are in big trouble. My father is a chief of a large clan and when he finds out what you are doing, you guys are toast.” I am sure his captors laughed and said “Yeah, right, and I am related to the King of Egypt”. Or when Potiphar buys a new slave Joseph says to him, “You are making big mistake, you should let me go home, my father is a strong warlord and he is going to come looking for me and when he finds me you will be in big trouble.” I am sure that Potiphar had heard this all before.
So now imagine Joseph in prison. It has been many years and his father never came looking for him. You would think by now Joseph’s picture would be on every milk carton in the Middle East. But Jacob never comes looking for Joseph. Alone in prison, Joseph figures it all out. His father never really loved him at all. His father sent him to his brothers after telling them to get rid of their little brother. It was all a plot to be rid of the young boy with big dreams. And Jacob was in on it. In prison Joseph learns to hate his family, the family that rejected him. When Pharaoh promotes Joseph to his number one advisor, Joseph gets a new family, a new wife and a new name and he is done with his family. Joseph is happy that he will never have to see them again.
And then the brothers show up on his doorstep looking for food. Joseph is now very bitter, he has been stewing on his anger for over 20 years. He would be happy to send them away without anything. Perhaps the only one in the family he does not hate is Benjamin. Benjamin was too young to be in on the plot and Joseph wonders if they hate him, the only other son of his mother, Rachel, like they hated Joseph. So he plots to “save” Benjamin from the fate that Joseph knows only too well. Joseph, plots to snatch Benjamin away from the family that hates him and all goes according to plan until this week’s Parsha, when Judah stands up and pleads on behalf of Benjamin.
The commentators latch on to this speech by Judah in that it mentions their father some seven times. Judah is clearly trying to pull on the heartstrings of this Egyptian tyrant not knowing, of course that the tyrant is Judah’s own brother. But Joseph hears something different in Judah’s speech. In a throwaway line, to show how much Jacob has suffered, Judah says, “We told you, my lord, we have an old father and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so he is left alone of his mother….” I am not sure that Joseph even heard the rest of Judah’s speech. All the pain and hate in Joseph begins to evaporate with a stunning thought he had never considered. Dad never came looking for me because he thought I was dead. Of course, Dear God, the pain he must have suffered. Dad was not in on the plot. Dad must have been mourning for me all these years. How could I have hated him all this time? I never knew… I never thought… I never understood… And Joseph breaks down in tears for all the opportunities wasted because of his misunderstanding.
This story you know. But there are other stories that we make up that we still don’t understand. All of us make up stories about people we know and people we don’t know; we make them up all the time. We think we know what others are thinking, but do we really understand their motives? A car cuts us off in traffic and we curse them as bad drivers and demand that they get off the road until they learn to drive. But we don’t really know why they are in such a hurry. Maybe their child has been taken to a hospital. Maybe they are a doctor on the way to a medical emergency. The point is that we don’t really know.
Even in our own families, we are quick to believe that a brother or sister, or even a parent, is plotting against us, trying to cheat us out of money they owe us, or they are playing out a rivalry by making us look foolish or selfish. So, we can go on for a long time, never talking to the offending relative, only to discover, years later, that they really were looking out for our own best interests.
I first learned to meditate at a ten-day silent retreat in Maryland. I arrived a couple of hours early and met some of the people who would be on the retreat with me. I learned their names and where they were from but there was not much time to really get to know them before we were bound to the silence that would help us learn about ourselves. Ten days in a room meditating with people you really don’t know at all. Ten days eating and praying without knowing the story of how any of them decided to attend the retreat. I would look around the room at their faces, and, to keep my life organized, I made up stories about them. This one looked like a teacher. That one, with the sad eyes must be divorced. The woman in the back must have small children. I created a story about everyone who shared that retreat with me.
Ten days later, we were finally freed from our silence and we talked about what we had learned. Not only was I wrong with my stories; I was not even close. It turns out that my stories about the others were really a story about myself. It was about the way I had seen the world, not how the world really existed. I began to understand that the only way to really get to know anyone is to sit down and talk to them. Only after we hear their own story, can we ever understand their motives and their approach to life.
A man once came to see me because his marriage was in trouble. He and his wife were arguing all the time, especially on Sunday afternoons when all he really wanted to do was to sit down with a cold beer and watch the football game. His wife would become angry, not because there were other things to do, but because she saw him as wasting his time. As he told me his story, I realized that he was a good guy, hardworking, and only wanted a few hours of relaxation, so I began to ask him about his wife. She seemed pretty normal as well. He did love her but was clueless as to why she went ballistic over a football game. When I asked about her parents he noted that her father was an alcoholic and she had removed him from her life. Suddenly, I understood, it was not the football game, it was the beer in his hand. I told him to consider her point of view. Every time he cracked open a beer, she was reliving the worst memories of her life. His eyes got really wide as he put this information together. He suddenly saw the situation from her point of view. He went home and that marriage was saved.
There really is only one way to understand another person. That is to ask them what is on their mind. We are smart people, but we are not mind readers. We may think we understand what others are thinking but, unless we ask, we never really know. We jump to conclusions without knowing the whole story. We make decisions about others based on facts that we make up, not based on any reality. We all create thousands of stories about other people every day but we have no idea if there is any truth in the stories we are creating. We fill in the gaps in our understanding of others based on our own experiences, not based on their journeys through life. And more often than not, we get it all wrong.
So, before we allow ourselves to get angry with someone else; before we decide to cut out another person from our life; even before we decide that we love someone else; we need to stop, put aside the stories we make up in our heads, and listen to the other person, to hear their motivations and understand their life. With this kind of listening brings understanding and compromise, the factors that make life and peace possible.
When Joseph realized how wrong he had been about his father, Joseph made immediate arrangements to bring Jacob down to Egypt and when Joseph heard his father was on his way, he went out and met him on the road. Joseph, I am sure, felt foolish for all the years of anger because he never considered that there may have been a reason for his father’s actions. I can tell you about the hundreds of times people have reconciled with family and friends after a misunderstanding was cleared and each of them said, “I am sorry that I waited so long.”
It is so easy to delude ourselves that we understand everything. The fact is, we don’t understand very much at all. Stories are just that, stories. In the end, real life is always better than fiction.
May God always open our hearts to others so that we might hear and understand their words the same way we pray that God hears and understands our prayers as we say …
Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, January 7, 2017.