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And while all these possible reads of the Joseph story are undoubtedly correct, we do ourselves and the story a great disservice if we fail to acknowledge the feature that differentiates it from every patriarchal narrative before it, namely, its location. This is a story about exile – all but a few verses taking place outside of the land of Canaan. From Joseph being sold down into Egypt as a youth, to his death-bed adjuration to his brothers that his bones be buried in the Promised Land, the spatial-spiritual contours of these chapters reflect the push and pull of exile. In each of the four parshiyot concerning Joseph, but especially in today’s parashah, the children of Israel migrate back and forth between Canaan and Egypt. By this telling, as biblical scholars have suggested, the story of Joseph’s forceable removal from his homeland must have resonated with the Jewish people’s subsequent experience of exile. What does it mean to live dislocated and disconnected from one’s people and one’s ancestral home? How exactly shall a Jew negotiate the vagaries of diaspora life? The questions of the Joseph story are the questions of exile. No doubt, the story of Joseph’s ascent from prison to power provided spiritual succor to a people in a constant state of political and geographic dislocation – so much so, that some scholars contend one can detect fingerprints of that diaspora experience informing the writing of the story itself.
But the exile of Joseph was not just about geography or political power; it was an exile with profound spiritual implications. When we first encounter Joseph in this morning’s Torah reading, he had been thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and sentenced to prison. And his sense of isolation was not only physical, but also psychological. He had been betrayed by his brothers, thought dead by his father, slandered by his master’s wife, and forgotten by the butler whose dream he had successfully interpreted. If there was ever a person who was spiritually sequestered, it was Joseph. Trace the narrative arc, and the verbal cues for Joseph’s psychic loneliness are strewn throughout the text. Last week, just before Joseph’s brothers pounce, Joseph says et ahai ani m’vakesh, I am looking for my brothers – a statement reflecting his lack of an emotional rudder, his desperate need for connection. (37:16) This week, years later, now Prince of Egypt, Joseph is blessed with a son whom he calls Menashe, a name whose etymology he explains as “God has caused me to forget my father’s house.” (41:51) Next week, when Joseph’s brothers stand dumbfounded in disbelief that it is actually their brother Joseph standing before them, he urges them g’shu na elai, Come close, approach me. (45:4) The invitation again reflects the void of community in Joseph’s life and his heartfelt and aching desire for spiritual nearness.
At times Joseph was an indentured servant, at times a prisoner, and at times a member of the Egyptian royal court, second only to Pharaoh. But whatever his station, no matter whether he was alone or surrounded by others, he was in exile from his family, his people, and to a certain degree, himself. Joseph’s task, no different than that of Sharansky, was to establish an imagined community in spite of his physical and existential loneliness. The Joseph story is far more than a well-crafted literary artifact. The Joseph story is a tale of profound significance because it relates the account of an individual who, when faced with dislocation, separation, isolation, and desolation – physical, familial, ethnic, and emotional – nevertheless finds the wherewithal to transcend and overcome the condition of spiritual exile.
And it is even more than that. The Joseph story is arguably the urtext containing the DNA that has sustained our people throughout all our exiles and dislocations. From the lamentations we sang by the rivers of Babylon to the Kabbalistic theology of shattered vessels expressed in the wake of the Spanish expulsion, Jews have known what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterized as a miasmic feeling that one should be elsewhere. From the glass we break at every Jewish wedding to the very direction in which we pray, to be a Jew is to live with a spiritual compass always directed toward Israel – both the people and the land. From Yehuda Halevi’s grief that his heart was in the east while he stood at the ends of the west to Yehuda Amichai’s appreciation of Jerusalem as a “port city on the shores of eternity,” the lyrical song of our people has been that of a scattered people trying to turn their gaze and spirit to a shared direction, devotion, and destiny. Not just Joseph, but the Jewish people as a whole. This has been our defining characteristic: our ability to build a coherent and connected identity, an imagined community, even when – perhaps especially when – we are physically and spiritually separated one from the other.
Friends, it is that muscle group, that secret sauce that has sustained our people since our very beginning, that we are all in desperate need of today. We are, thank God, not Joseph; we are not Sharansky; our prisons are not literal. But owing to the COVID pandemic, we are, I would contend, in a state of spiritual incarceration, a condition we all share. We cannot gather together in the synagogue, greeting each other warmly as we would like. We cannot see our family members whom we love. None of us can be where we want, with whom we want, when we want. Just think about our COVID lexicon; every entry in that glossary is about either contact or distance. You say exposure, I say quarantine. You say transmission, I say isolation. You say contagion, I say lockdown. Why am I at home today and not in the sanctuary? Because while every member of the Cosgrove family is, thank goodness, doing fine, someone at the school in which my wife teaches tested positive, which makes her a contact, which makes me a contact-of-a-contact, which means I am here at home and not in the sanctuary where I belong. And the cruel paradox is, as Abdullah Shihipar explained in The New York Times some months ago, that the very thing that is required to keep us healthy – social distancing – is also the very thing that has inflicted immeasurable mental and physical damage on us all. None of us need look beyond our own doorstep to know the cost of our extended isolation from each other. TikToks and memes are nice and sometimes even fun. But as long as human beings are human, we will crave human contact, the present absence of which has exacted a painful toll from us all.
For reasons both bad and good, this week marked a turning point. On the one hand, the daily rate of COVID spread hit a terrifying new high; on the other hand, we witnessed the administration of the long-awaited vaccine. For the first time in a long time, we see a sliver of hope, and yet we all know that we must first weather a long, hard winter. Our enforced diaspora has not yet run its course. We remain, each and every one of us, in exile. As did Joseph in his day, as Jews have done since time immemorial, we must, for the time being, sustain ourselves by our imagined communities. From our condition of spiritual exile, I urge you to draw close to each other. Unlike Sharansky and Joseph, our communities, our interconnectedness need not be imagined. Ours can be real. We have phones, we have email, we have Zoom, we have livestream. We can reach out and invite someone for a socially distanced walk. We can make a list of people in need of a phone call and then prosecute that list with a sense of priority and purpose. You can call the synagogue and ask for names of people who might benefit from a check-in. You can even drop someone an old-fashioned handwritten note saying that you are thinking of them and hope that 2021 is better than 2020. We need to remind people that they are not alone. We need to remind ourselves that we are not alone. We have a responsibility to each other and to ourselves to nurture relationships that will, in turn, nurture us. We are straining, we are being forced to bend, but we will not be broken. We have been thrown into the pit, but we can lift each other up. Our weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
We are not alone. We are never alone.