Arrogance or Love? – the Biblical Story of Joseph

Two years ago, my life-partner, co-author, and often co-teacher Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I wrote and Jewish Lights published  a reinterpretation of the biblical stories of Exodus and Wilderness: Freedom Journeys. (If you’d like to have this kind of biblical reinterpretation available to stir your own journeys toward freedom in the world – and/or you’d like to give its gift of freedom for Hanukkah or Christmas --  you can receive Freedom Journeys, with a personal insciption, by clicking to

Our book beckons toward freedom. Yet it begins with a story of enslavement, not liberation.  It begins with the story of Joseph, which we enter this week in reading the Torah.

The story of Joseph is a novel that takes up one-third of the Book of Genesis. There is a recurrent pattern in Joseph’s life: He depends on a powerful overlord in his life to lift him above others who feel they ought to be treated as his equals, and who are enraged by his arrogance.

  • The pattern begins when with his father’s help in favoring him. He rises above his brothers and infuriates them with his arrogance until they throw him in a pit, threaten to kill him, and finally sell him as a slave into Egypt. (In Hebrew, “Egypt” is “Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Place.”)
  • There he becomes the chief of household for a nobleman named Potiphar, not only rising above the other servants but displacing even Potiphar’s wife from her leadership of the household. She charges him with attempted rape, thus getting him thrown into prison.
  • There the warden lifts Joseph above his fellow prisoners to become a “trusty,” but when Joseph interprets a dream of a fellow prisoner for the other fellow’s good, the man he benefits leaves prison for prosperity but leaves Joseph behind to suffer in ignominy. 
  • When Pharaoh hears of Joseph’s skill as a dream interpreter, he lifts Joseph to the pinnacle of power as viceroy of Egypt. Joseph plans a social transformation that turns yeoman farmers into sharecroppers or worse, and centralizes all power in the hands of Pharaoh, with Joseph just beneath him.

In every turning of his life, Joseph – drawing on the favoritism of a powerful overlord -- lifts himself above those who might have been his equals. Each time, until the encounter with Pharaoh, this power grab of his leads to disaster: For rising above, he is thrown far below.

In his own lifetime, the maneuver with Pharaoh seems to succeed. But  –-  one book of Torah later, across the “white space” between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, a later Pharaoh turns against Joseph’s descendants and enslaves them (as Joseph had in effect enslaved most Egyptians a couple of generations before).

It seems to me this is a cautionary tale.  In the whole story, the one profound success is that Joseph is fully reconciled with his brothers, out of their repentance for enslaving him, their love for their father and for their youngest brother, Benjamin --  and Joseph’s own decision to turn away from revenge toward forgiveness and compassion.

Over and over, ambition and arrogance lead to disaster. The one success is rooted in love.

This biblical novel takes the great command of Torah: Love your neighbor as yourself  -- and turns it into a story.

In our own lives today, we watch the arrogance of some modern global corporations and some governmental organzations become disaster.  Their arrogance toward the human beings who are all “created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and arrogance toward Mother Earth, from whom all blessings flow –- their arrogance toward the Breath of Life Itself, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh – breeds disaster.  

 This is not a conventional interpretation of the Joseph story  -- but true Freedom Journeys rarely follow conventional paths.  The Torah itself is an unconventional weaving of story and law, poetry and rage, symmetry and earthquake.

Three weeks ago, The Shalom Center celebrated "This is what 80 Looks Like" to take heart in the 80th birthdays of Gloria Steinem and myself as we continue our active pursuit of freedom, justice, and healing. 

Yesterday Gloria received from the President of the United States the Medal of Freedom. In our celebration on November 3, she showed how free of arrogance she is, how she – a world figure who could easily have “risen” to heights of prima donna, is instead a mensch.

A teaching to us all : Arrogance destroys: lovingkindness transforms.

P.S – If you’d like to have this kind of biblical reinterpretation available to stir your own journeys toward freedom in the world – and/or you’d like to give its gift of freedom for Hanukkah or Christmas --  you can receive Freedom Journeys by clicking to  



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