Joseph: Tzaddik in the Dark?

IV  In the Dark: Joseph and His Brothers 

            Each year as the days darken into winter, the cycle of Torah readings returns to the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is almost as if the rhythm of the seasons were joining in the rhythm of the readings, to teach us that we are entering the dark side of the tradition.

          And the story darkens us, every time we read it.

             For the story of Joseph is one of ambition, envy, material power, slavery. Even darker: it is a story not only of slavery to men, but slavery to fate. It is a story of determinism, not of freedom of the will. And it is a tale of God's eclipse: never does Joseph have a clear and unambiguous conversation with God as did his forebears Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob. Darkness reigns above and in his life.

             To begin with, Joseph lives his life in a spiral of ambition. On two dimensions of the spiral, he moves forward to rule over those who had been his equals—and falls back when his equals take revenge. On the third dimension of the spiral, he is always moving "upward"—in the scale of the community he seeks to dominate. He starts out small, in his own family. His very childhood seems to be a conspiracy between himself and his father to see him as his brothers' overseer—and even his brothers join in defining him that way. First Joseph reports to his father on his brothers’ behavior. When he has some ambiguous dreams of his own power—the only dreams of his own that the Bible describes—his brothers and his father hasten to interpret the dreams as visions of his power over them. They teach him to think of himself as a boss or overseer. Then his father confirms the teaching by sending him to check on the brothers and report back. That is when they rebel, throw him in the pit, and sell him into slavery. Some overseer!

            But the training as a boss continues. On the second curve of the spiral, Joseph starts as a slave in the household of Potiphar in Egypt. But Potiphar soon appoints Joseph to oversee the house, subservient still to Potiphar but in charge of everyone else. Although Joseph found favor in his master's eyes, his master's wife cast her eyes upon him. She tried to seduce him.

             It is easy to imagine that this was only a trick, never a real seduction: a desperate, furious effort to overthrow an upstart slave. It ended as it was supposed to, with Joseph in jail. Just as the brothers had sold him into slavery, so she sold him with lies into prison. 

            And there, for a third time, Joseph becomes an overseer: the prison's warden puts him in charge of all the other prisoners. The prison prospers so much so that it be­comes the preferred place to imprison Pharaoh's own high officers. Here Joseph interprets their dreams, but he is so unloved that even the butler whose return to the palace he predicts does not lift a finger to get him out of prison.

            Finally Joseph gets his chance from Pharaoh himself, the father of his country. And Joseph, after years in prison, years of suffering and fury, does not hesitate: He has been an outcast and a foreigner long enough. He wants to be a powerful Egyptian. So he and Pharaoh agree to make him Supreme Overseer over all Egypt, Pharaoh’s chief servant who will turn all of Egypt’s yeoman farmers into cringing servants of Pharaoh. Indeed, Joseph volunteers to reduce all Egypt into one great prison‑house, and Pharaoh triumphantly accepts.

            What is the result? The people first harvest an abundance of grain, which they sell to Pharaoh's store‑system. But when famine comes, they must year by year give Pharaoh their money, their cattle, and finally their land itself, in order to get bread to eat and seed to sow the land with. Thus step by step, Joseph reduces them to sharecroppers and all the land to Pharaoh's property. The role he had been practicing and learning all his life is fulfilled.

            This time Joseph does the job so well that there is no one able to rebel and cast him into another slavery. Or so it seems until long after his death. When we turn to the early pages of Exodus and realize that the Jews have been flung into slavery by a Pharaoh who did not cherish Joseph, we may wonder whether the spiral has spun once again. Does the whole people suffer for Joseph's ambition?

            For this is not even ordinary ambition: it seems much darker.

             Indeed, as the Fabrangen read the story, some of us reacted with horror. Here we were in Washington in the early 1970s, sharing an ethic of solidarity against tyrannical power —the kind of power that could kill many thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in an endless murderous war, that could haunt and disrupt the lives of those they put on “enemies lists” because they worked for change.

             If we had come to Torah with a hero, it was Moses, who holds princely power but joins with slaves to strike down an overseer. Yet here we face Joseph, who does the reverse: a prisoner, he becomes an overseer to tighten slavery. At every step, Joseph is appointed to his power by someone yet more powerful than he and is ordered to rule over those with whom he might have felt some solidarity. His brothers, his fellow slaves in the house of Potiphar, his fellow prisoners, his fellow peasants in the land of Egypt—could he not have felt some solidarity with all of them? 

            He didn't.  As we Fabrangeners talked our way more deeply into the Torah story, someone muttered, "Kapo!" and a shudder ran through the room. The word comes out of the Nazi death camps. It was the word for a Jew whom the Nazis chose to police his own equals and comrades. The word got under our skin like a venomous splinter. Someone stirred: “I remember a terrifying poem that was written by a starving child in the Warsaw ghetto. This is how it goes:

 I want to eat.

  I want to rob.

  I want to kill.

  I want to be a German.

            "Isn't that Joseph?  So desperate not to be a prisoner that he wants to be a cop. So desperate not to be a Hebrew that he wants to be the second biggest Egyptian." Others half agreed. It seemed to be Joseph's need —  his life — to turn his very victimization into the tool for making others victims.

            But another Fabrangener burst out: "Let's keep our concepts straight. The kapos were complicit in mass murder. And that poem says, 'I want to kill.' Joseph didn't kill. He did the opposite: he saved the lives of all of Egypt's people. Maybe he wanted to eat badly enough to rob others of their land; maybe he wanted to be free badly enough to become an Egyptian viceroy. But kapo is an uncompromising word. A kapo he's not."

            Others joined a cautionary chorus. It is certainly true that Joseph's reading a prediction of the famine into Pharaoh's dream is what makes it possible to store up food against the years of famine. His grasping of power under Pharaoh makes the possibility bear fruit. And so both Egypt and his own family, the bearers of Jewish peoplehood, are saved from starvation. How can we ignore the jubilation of the Torah at the rescue of Jacob's clan from famine? As Joseph himself says when he reveals himself to his brothers: Was it not God's doing, the inevitable unfolding of God's will to save life, that the brothers sell him into slavery? Was it not God's will that through this channel of the pit and slavery he would become Viceroy of Egypt and save their lives?

            But others found this sense of inevitability the darkest aspect of the Joseph story: "Was this the only way to save the family? Wasn't Joseph free to choose another way?" For some of us, this sense of inevitability made it even clearer that Joseph belongs on the dark side of the tradition. For Joseph is a determinist, in a tradition that usually looks toward the free choice of good and evil by human beings. Joseph predicts disaster, in a tradition that usually does not predict but prophesies disaster—in the sense that a prophecy can be averted if the people change their ways.

            For Joseph's determinism is not just retroactive. It is not just that he tells the brothers afterwards that there could have been no other way. Joseph applies his determinism to the future, applies it to shape the policy of Pharaoh. Joseph the determinist triumphs when he interprets the Pharaoh's double dream: the dream of seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows and the dream of seven withered ears of grain devouring seven good ears.

             First Joseph says he cannot interpret the dream; he must ask God. But he does not wait to ask God. He rushes ahead to say that the double dream is a proof that the future is fixed and certain. He says there will—not might, will—be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. He shows Pharaoh how to alleviate the famine—not prevent it. His power flows from that moment. The centralization of Egypt under the king flows from that moment.

             Could it have been different? Let us imagine—let us pierce between the lines to imagine—what might have happened if Joseph had asked God for guidance, and God had answered. Do we have any hint of what God might have said to do, in order to deal with the danger of famine?

             Yes. We have God's command of how to prevent famine in the Land of Israel. In every year, every landholding family must allow the poor to gather grain from the corners of the field; and in the seventh year the land must lie fallow and all debts must be forgiven. The seventh year? How instructive! Perhaps Pharaoh's dream should have been read to say: There will be seven years of plenty. If you reap all seven years, there will follow seven years of famine. If you rest in the seventh year, you will have enough to eat. If .

           What Joseph hears and what he creates is almost precisely the reverse of the process that God commands for the Land of Israel.

            True, that was not till sometime later; but it was not till later that someone asked God for a Teaching and listened when it came. The Teaching might have been available whenever anyone asked.

            True, that was not till someplace else; but what made the Land of Israel into the Land of Israel was precisely that people wrestled there with God. The Teaching might have been available wherever anyone wrestled. What makes Joseph the funnel of the descent into Egypt, into unredeemed space and unredeemed time, is that he is the first of the patriarchal families who never addresses God directly, who never asks or wrestles.


            What Joseph teaches Pharaoh in Egypt is like a photographic negative of what God teaches Israel at Sinai—dark where Sinai is light, light where it is dark.

 In the Teaching from Sinai, it is God who owns the land; in Joseph's practice, it is Pharaoh—who claimed godship for himself, who was a living idol. It is almost as if some dark vibration had come through to Joseph saying, "God should own the land"—so darkly that he grasped it, ''Pharaoh should own the land."

             In the Teaching from Sinai, the priestly tribe of Levi is the one group of Israelites who are to hold no land at all. The power they hold through the system of Temple sacrifice is to be checked by making them materially dependent on the tithing of the other tribes. But in Joseph's practice, the one group of Egyptians other than Pharaoh who end up still owners of their land is the priesthood. Thus in Egypt they have both spiritual and material power. It is almost as if some dark vibration had come through to Joseph saying, "The priests are special"—but he grasped it, "The priests alone must keep their land."


            The Teaching from Sinai prevents famine; Joseph's practice accepts famine and tries to limit its effects. The Teaching from Sinai radically decentralizes power into the families that share their gleanings and let their land lie fallow; Joseph's practice radically centralizes power into the hands of Pharaoh and his bureaucracy. The Teaching from Sinai frees the earth to make its own Shabbos, every seventh year; Joseph’s practice enslaves the land itself to constant work.


So all of Joseph's darkness and his sense of narrowness, unfreedom, focus in that moment of interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

             Joseph has no light from God, does not feel himself free to call on God, even though he wistfully remembers that it is God who interprets dreams. Joseph believes that history is not free to change: it has been given. Perhaps even God is not free to change. And the people are not free to save themselves: they must become serfs to Pharaoh if they want to live.

            Given no vision that would light a path of free choice, Joseph becomes a determinist, convinced there is no free choice. It is precisely out of this spiritual experience and conviction that he creates a national policy that abolishes freedom for the people of Egypt. They elevate Pharaoh to Godhead and accept the yoke of an unchangeable history— even an unchangeable succession of nature history in which come famine and plenty in a remorseless, regardless of what human beings do.

            Profoundly different from that teaching of the Torah that says: “Whether we act on what the SacredTeachings tell us is what determines whether the rains fall, the rivers run, our people eat in plenty — or the rains turn to poison, the rivers and the oceans flood, we starve.” A teaching so important that it appears in our prayer books just after the Sh’ma itself, when we listen to ourselves proclaim, “Hear! — Our God is One!”  What does God’s unity proclaim? That the earth is one, we are entwined with rain and soil, we are free to make decisions about the earth that then have consequences in our own lives — because we are indeed entwined with earth.

            But this is not what Joseph heard. For him the absence of spiritual freedom, the absence of personal psychological freedom, the absence of political freedom, the absence of freedom for the earth —all mesh.

             In Fabrangen we sat silent for a while, gazing outside into the wintry darkness. One of us mused, "It's not only the measures to deal with famine that are like a dark version of the tradition. Joseph is like a dark version of Moses. Joseph precedes the people into Egypt— Mitzrayim, “Narrow Straits” the Hebrew means. And then he brings them all in. Moses precedes them out, then leads them all out. Joseph goes from prison to the palace. Moses goes from the palace into exile. Joseph leads the people to material prosperity, but for hundreds of years in Egypt they hear nothing from God. Moses leads them out of the fleshpots and leek stews of Egypt, but he leads them to Sinai, and God's Self‑revelation."

             But finally one of us became impatient with the gloom outside and in. "Remember," he said, "the tradition insists that Joseph is a tzaddik, a righteous person. Not a kapo, not even an overseer, not even overly ambitious. A tzaddik. Is there anything we ought to learn from that?"

            What evidence is there that Joseph is a tzaddik? First of all, the tradition itself fastens on one fact: he refuses Potiphar's wife. Despite all the attractions of sex—perhaps especially for a young man far from home and friends, dazzled by sophisticated Egypt—despite all this, he refuses to commit adultery. Although God does not speak to him, he remembers what he has been taught about God's holy path of life.

            Second, Joseph cares for his father and his family—even for the brothers who have wronged him. He was willing to plunge Egypt into serfdom, but he insists on plunging his clan into prosperity. So his willingness to offer reconciliation may also make him something of a tzaddik. But some of us were still wary. If Joseph is a tzaddik, he is a tzaddik‑in‑the‑dark.

            Indeed, we realize that his determinism runs deeper than his mental outlook on the world. We have been thinking about him as if he had chosen the role of overseer — chosen it in the family, the house of Potiphar, the prison, the kingdom. But there is a profound sense in which Joseph never chose this role. His life had worn this groove into his being the way a needle wears a groove into a phonograph record: once a scratch appears, each circling of the needle digs it deeper, deeper. It is his father Jacob who first scratches this way of being on his life, by setting him above his older brothers.

            Or did it begin even earlier? Was Jacob acting out the history of his own childhood? The story in which his mother had chosen him to go beyond his older brother Esau, just as his father Isaac had been chosen by his father Abraham to go beyond his older brother Ishmael?  

            All these stories of supplanted older brothers we have seen as tales of freedom, reversals of the Fate that said an older brother was in charge. But perhaps at this point what began as an act of freedom, God’s freedom opening up new possibilities to human beings, has worn a groove that is no longer free. Jacob invites his son Joseph not simply to go beyond his brothers, but to stand above his brothers; to rule over them. He makes Joseph into his brothers’ overseer even though no Voice of God has decreed this. He responds only to a dream, a dream seen only by another’s eyes, spoken only by another’s mouth. He might have paused to seek from his own inner Voice, the Voice of God, some meaning for this dream. It might have been a warning rather than a directive; but he let the scratch on his own life dictate what he heard in the dream that Joseph dreamed.

             From then on, Joseph was a prisoner of fate. Indeed, long afterward he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream without pausing for God to give a free interpretation, just as he had seen his father do with him. The process and the content, the medium and the message, fused. Joseph’s father walked like an automaton down a path similar to the one Abraham and Isaac had walked with much more freedom; this automatic path led to domination, not transformation; and Joseph learned to think of himself as humble servant of an inscrutable fate, walking blindly through God’s fore-ordained drama.


            We turned to face ourselves: have our own family histories bound us inexorably to dramas of domination and submission? Is it true, as the Ten Commandments say, that the mis-steps of the parents control the lives of their offspring three, even four, generations into the future? What did it do to my mother and father that each of them went through the death of a parent when they were very young? Did they pass that suffering on to me? What are my struggles with my brother communicating to my children? My parents and I; my brother and I; my children and I — what can we do to dissolve these dictates, free ourselves from the tightness of the unchanging past?

            As we talked together in Fabrangen, slowly we realized: maybe what is most important about Joseph is precisely that he is a tzaddik who has been left in the dark. It is true that he does not address God, but it is equally true that God never addresses him. God leaves him in the dark—speaks to him only through dreams, those visions of the dark, and mostly through other people's dreams at that.


            Given no light to live by, Joseph tries to grasp the darkness, to walk firmly, not to stumble. He learns to turn the role of overseer, the role that might have degenerated into kapo, in the other direction—to the role of saving life. Although he turns Egypt into a plantation, he does not turn it into a death camp—and by his lights,he turns it into a plantation precisely to keep it from turning into a death camp.

             And at the moment of his dark triumph as the Grand Overseer, Joseph is able to let go of that role in dealing with his brothers: he is able to turn toward them in real reconciliation. It is true that even this moment burns with a kind of purple flame—for the brothers come down into Egypt, down into material wealth, down ultimately into slavery. And yet—and yet—if we are facing deepest winter, there may not be anything we can do but light a fire, however dark it burns.

             With all these threads, the Joseph story is weaving some darkness into Torah. Dark threads of fate, dark threads of central power. As we watch, those threads darken more and more of the fabric until, as the Book of Genesis ends, God's own Self goes into eclipse. 

            God disappears not only for Joseph, but for the whole clan and people. As Exodus opens, we realize that for hundreds of years the Torah itself has gone dark in Egypt. Winter outside, the Torah going dark inside the room.

             As one of us pointed out, the fit between the cycle of the reading and the seasons is no accident. The winter always comes. Darkness always falls. Exile always over­ takes us. How many of us have seen the Vision, heard the Voice? How many of us experience the world as freedom and ourselves as free, for more than a moment of our lives? Or ever? So the story may be teaching us how to live in the dark. That even in the dark it is possible to be a tzaddik. That even in the dark one must strive to be a tzaddik.

            Inexorable necessity: dark thread in God' s gift of a world where choice is free.


            Central power: dark thread in God's gift of freedom in society. Scarcity: dark thread in God's gift of a world of plenty.


            Threads we need to use when we stand in the dark.


             For much of our lives, we find ourselves small versions of an overseer.


  • In our families: like Joseph, we find ourselves shaping our relatives to meet the demands of someone other than ourselves.
  • In our jobs: like Joseph, we find ourselves controlling some of our fellow workers to meet the requirements of the boss or the organization.
  •  In society: like Joseph, we find ourselves calming some outraged anger in order to keep the institutions running. Or we find ourselves, like Joseph, trying to meet some crisis and building more control than we had wanted.

            “Like Lenin, like Mao," said one Fabrangener. "They're Joseph. They tried to feed the people and to do it they centralized all power in the State. Maybe we can no more write Mao and Lenin out of history than we can erase the winter from the seasons."


             Necessity and order, obedience and order. We all demand it, we all coerce it. Even the most rebellious, even the most radical among us do it—sometimes. The issue is always, when? Do we let necessity overwhelm us, do we feel its moment to be endless? Or do we limit necessity to the winter, to but one of the four generations of the clan of Abraham? Do we simply turn passive when the winter darkens, or do we turn at Hanukkah to light the candles?


            We hurry past the dark place in the Torah. As the days grow lighter, we greet the fire of the Burning Bush. Joseph takes us from prison to the palace; but Moses takes us from the palace to the Bush. And then to fiery Sinai.


            Joseph reminds us to be a tzaddik when it's dark. But the sun grows brighter, springtime does appear, and we learn from Moses that God is free to change—and so are we.






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