At the heart of this week’s Torah reading sits a question – ancient and still actively debated – a question whose answer is, I believe, the key to understanding not only the biblical story of Joseph, but the stories of our own lives. A question whose simple formulation belies a complexity verging on the insoluble: Why didn’t Joseph write home?
The outline of the story is familiar to many of us. Joseph was the firstborn child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Jacob favored Joseph over his brothers, perhaps sensing the presence of his late wife in the countenance of his handsome son. Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat was undoubtedly but one of Jacob’s many acts of paternal favoritism which, together with Joseph’s talebearing and his self-aggrandizing dreams, enflamed the ire of his brothers. In last week’s Torah reading, as fraternal tensions reached a boiling point, Jacob sent the seventeen-year-old Joseph to find his brothers. Upon seeing Joseph approach, they first conspired to throw him into a pit and then sold him to a caravan of traders en route to Egypt. The brothers famously covered up their misdeed by showing their father the bloodstained coat of many colors, leading Jacob to conclude that poor, poor Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast. As for Joseph, he became a servant in Potiphar’s house, but was falsely accused of misconduct and sentenced to rot in an Egyptian prison. And while I am skipping a few key details, some thirteen years later, in this week’s Torah reading, Joseph is brought to stand before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams and then becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph leads Egypt through seven years of plenty and prepares for seven years of famine, stockpiling an abundance which we know eventually prompts his brothers to descend to Egypt in search of sustenance.
The Joseph story is the most well-crafted narrative of the entire Torah. It provides an endless number of entry points and interpretive possibilities, and we are not even halfway through it. This year, I want to turn to a question that I have never addressed: Why didn’t Joseph write home? Some two decades have passed since he was sold into servitude, and, depending on how you count, he spent nearly ten of those years in the upper echelons of the Egyptian royal court. Joseph saved his adopted country; he revamped the entire economy; he transformed Egypt into a geopolitical superpower, the producer and distributor of the very stuff on which the world depended, and yet, never . . . ever . . . not once . . . did he pick up a phone, write a letter, send an emissary, email, or text message to see how his old man was faring in the old country.
I am not the first to ask the question. It was most famously and most forcefully stated by the thirteenth-century Spanish thinker Nachmanides. He writes:
“…how is it possible that he [Joseph] did not send a single letter to his father to inform him of his whereabouts and comfort him, as Egypt is only about a six-day journey from Hebron? Even if it were a year’s journey, out of respect to his father, he should have notified him . . .” (Nachmanides on Genesis 42:9)
Joseph had the time to do so, he had the power to do so, openly or discreetly. To see how his dad was doing, to let his dad know that he was alive and doing fine. He could have done so, but he did not. The question is why?
Grateful as we are to Nachmanides for the clarity with which he states the question, his answer fails to satisfy. According to Nachmanides, Joseph held fast to his intoxicating childhood dreams that one day his brothers and father would bow down to him. To reach out to his father prematurely, reasons Nachmanides, risked interfering with the realization of those dreams; better to let destiny and the dreams play out and let everyone arrive in Egypt in due time.
Slightly more satisfying is the less theologically minded thought that Joseph was angry with his brothers. He justifiably harbored resentment against them and wanted them either to stew in their sin or repent for it. For Joseph to tell his father that he was alive would interfere with his plan to bring his brothers to repentance. No different than Andy Dufrense, Danny Ocean, and Debbie Ocean, Joseph used his years in jail to plot his revenge, a plan that, for whatever reason, involved keeping the fact of his existence quiet.
The most straightforward reason why Joseph kept quiet was that Egyptian life for Joseph was really good, if not just about perfect. Vizier to Pharaoh, the plenty of Egypt at his fingertips, married to the daughter of the high priest, and blessed with two upstanding and outstanding sons – Ephraim and Menashe – the first set of biblical brothers who actually seem to get along. Joseph’s last memory of Canaan was hardly a pleasant one – a hurt that was understandably hard to let go. If Joseph was self-reflective enough to acknowledge his part in incurring his brothers’ wrath, he probably felt a shame that made him squirm. Sometimes you just have to turn a page, move on, and count your lucky stars that you landed on your feet. Why didn’t Joseph write home? Look at where he is! Look at where he came from! Why in the world would he write home?
There is no shortage of answers as to why Joseph did not write home. Maybe he was traumatized, maybe he was ashamed, maybe he was happy living large in Egypt, maybe there was a plan, providential or otherwise, to fulfill. Maybe, as a young woman shared with me at Thursday night’s young adult event, it was because boys don’t call their fathers; they call their mothers, and Joseph did not have a mother to call.
There are probably as many answers to our question of why Joseph didn’t write home as there are people who have read our story. But when all is said and done, I think the most plausible explanation is that Joseph didn’t write Jacob because in Joseph’s mind, Jacob was responsible – in part or in full – for the fate that befell him years earlier. Think about it from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph’s last contact with his father was the directive to seek out his brothers as they pastured their flocks in Shechem. Before Joseph knew what hit him, he was thrown into a pit and sold into Egypt. Joseph was only as good as the information he had; the narrative he constructed was based on the facts he knew, facts that could reasonably implicate his father in his misfortune. Not everything lined up neatly – in Joseph’s eyes, Jacob’s sin may have been one of omission, not commission. Joseph knew he was the favorite; it would strain credulity for Joseph to believe that Jacob wanted him to suffer. But Joseph could have held his father responsible for how things turned out, for putting him in harm’s way, for saying nothing as fraternal tensions boiled over, or for favoring him in the first place – so much so that his brothers hated him so much, they wanted to do away with him. Had Jacob not learned anything from the misfires of his own upbringing? Joseph must have wondered how Jacob, given his own background, could have been so obtuse when it came to his own parenting.
In trying to understand why Joseph didn’t write home, it is not the facts of the case that matter, nor what Jacob’s intent may have been. All that matters is how Joseph perceived what happened to him. For thirteen long years Joseph sat stewing in that jail, playing the scene over and over and over again in his mind. How could his father have been so cavalier as a parent? Had he not learned the lessons of his own childhood? As a reader of the text, as a son to a father and father to a son, I understand it. Committed as we are not to commit the same missteps with our own children as our parents did with us, sometimes we do exactly just that – saddling our kids with the very burdens we swore we never would. Consider the names Joseph chooses for his sons: Menashe and Ephraim, the first meaning “God has caused me to forget the hardship of my father’s house,” and the second an expression of gratitude for having been made fruitful in the land of his sojourn. (Genesis 41:51-52) It is a heartbreaking thought that for Joseph, fathering children of his own was the emotional antidote to the parenting missteps of his own father. It helps explain why Joseph’s relationship to Pharaoh is described in paternal language (45:8) – a substitute for the father-son relationship Joseph didn’t have with his biological father. We miss the point if we read the Joseph story to be solely about sibling rivalry and reconciliation. This is a tale about fathers and sons. Why didn’t Joseph write his father to tell him he was alive, to check in on how his old man was doing? Because in the prison of Joseph’s mind, it was Jacob who was responsible for all that befell him when he was seventeen years old.
It is through this lens of fathers and sons that the rest of the Joseph story snaps into place. Count the number of times in this week’s Torah reading that the brothers identify themselves as the sons of one man, and consider how those words must have been received by Joseph. It explains why, when Joseph – his identity still hidden – receives his brothers for a second time, his first inquiry is about the well-being of their shared father. And what is true for Joseph regarding his father is also true for Jacob regarding the guilt he felt vis-a-vis what he believed to be the fate of his son. The biblical narrator pulls on these same father-son heartstrings in drawing out Jacob’s refusal to let Benjamin go down to Egypt. How could he, given that he understood himself to be tacitly responsible for Joseph’s fate. Every aspect of the Joseph story is laden with meaning; nothing is happenstance, right down to the caravan of goods that Jacob sends to accompany the brothers down to Egypt, mirroring the very goods that accompanied Joseph when he was sold into servitude. Had Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber not already done so, I would stage this story with a split screen, Jacob on one side and Joseph on the other: father and son in their own way and own worlds confronting, struggling, and eventually letting go of the feelings of guilt, blame, and resentment that had separated them all these years.
And while I want to leave something to be said next week, this is precisely what will happen in the Torah readings to come. When Judah stands before Joseph offering his own life in place of Benjamin’s, it is the paternal – not fraternal – bonds that are at play. Judah may or may not have known what he was doing, but just count the number of times he references their father Jacob as he hammers away at Joseph’s frozen heart. It is only through Judah’s speech that Joseph finally realizes that his father had no knowledge of what actually happened – that Jacob was duped by the brothers into believing that Joseph was eaten by a wild beast – a realization that unleashes Joseph’s emotional catharsis. As he tearfully reveals his identity to his brothers, his first words, significantly, are about his father’s well-being: Ha-od avi hai? Does my father still live? (45:3). And when Jacob and Joseph do see each other, they weep on each other’s necks, as Jacob and Esau did years before. One senses that there is more at play than just father and son; Jacob is coming to terms with aspects of his own identity that long preceded Joseph’s arrival into the world. And then, in two weeks and a few decades time, when Jacob lies on his deathbed and Joseph brings his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, for a blessing, only the hardest of heart would fail to be moved by the scene of Joseph watching his aged father bless the very sons, who, early in the narrative, signaled the rupture of the generations. How must it have felt for Jacob, eyes dimmed as were those of his father Isaac when he and his brother Esau received their blessings, now to bless his grandsons in the presence of Joseph? How must it have felt for Joseph to see his father bless his boys – one generation to the next to the next. What was once broken – with the passage of time, with the blessing of hindsight and the gift of forgiveness – repaired.
Friends, our children our much smarter than we give them credit for, and we, their parents, are far less clever than we would have ourselves believe, and all of us are deeply and inescapably human, flawed, and in need of forgiveness. We are all imprisoned in the narratives that we have constructed for ourselves, none of us as aware of all the sides of the story as we think we are. The key to our freedom from the self-constructed prisons of our minds is as simple and as scary as being open to listening to another side of the story, different than the one we have told ourselves all these years. The story of Joseph teaches that while we are all extensions of what came before, and we are all guilty of passing down burdens from one generation to the next, we can, if we so choose, also be bestowers of blessings. We can bless our children, like Ephraim and Menashe, granting our children the gift of dreaming dreams to be fulfilled in their lifetimes and in the generations to come.