This is adapted from a drash Z. S. will read this weekend at Devar Emet Messianic Congregation. A drash is a brief takeaway from the weekly cycle of texts, or the weekly the parashah. “G-d” is spelled with a dash out of respect for Jewish custom.
Torah: Genesis 41:1-44:17
Haftarah (taken from the prophets): 1 Kings 3:24-28
Brit Chadashah (New Testament): Acts 7:54-60
“Sprezzatura,” “sangfroid,” “equanimity”: these are fancy words used to describe the ability of a courtier to remain casual and completely unphased by the petty worries and excitements of his peers. (A more familiar term might be “chill.”) A courtier with these traits is not easily waylaid by his enemies’ intrigues, because in keeping calm he always keeps his end goal in sight. Joseph kept his calm during the highs and lows of his life because he discerned and remembered God’s plan to use him for good. We likewise must step back from the craziness of life to keep our focus on God and His purposes in the midst of our ups and downs.
In today’s Torah portion, Pharaoh called Joseph out of prison to interpret his dreams. Joseph’s lucid response bore witness to God’s presence in his life. Pharaoh, impressed, clothed him “with fine linen garments, put a chain of gold around his neck,” and gave him power over all Egypt. But none of these wonderful changes distracted Joseph from God’s calling for him. What was this calling? Verse forty-nine gives us a hint: “Joseph stored up grain like the sand of the sea, vast amounts, until he stopped keeping record because it was beyond counting.” The sand of the sea that is beyond counting reminds us of God’s promise to make Abraham’s seed like the sand of the sea. At this point in the story, the text averts our focus away from Joseph’s new royal privileges and reminds us of the real problem at hand: the survival of God’s chosen lineage.
Later, when the years of famine arrived, Joseph messed with his brothers by simultaneously accusing them and showing them favor. Why did Joseph delay revealing himself to his brothers? He played tricks with them in order to redeem their evil act for good. Joseph’s brothers, seeing half the picture, only saw the negative in what they had done: “We’re truly guilty for our brother,” they said. But Joseph saw God’s plan even in his brother’s evil deeds. When he accused Benjamin of stealing a silver cup, Joseph spoke words he had wanted to tell his brothers for years: “What’s this deed you’ve done? Didn’t you know that a man like me can discern by divination?” Eerily applicable to his youth. In fear, his brothers offered themselves to serve as Joseph’s slaves, but Joseph proclaimed that only Benjamin, whom he loved dearly, would stay as his slave. In demanding that his beloved brother Benjamin stay in Egypt, Joseph redefined and redeemed the very slavery his brothers had sold him into. By keeping his disguise, Joseph created a live-action parable that flipped the evil deed of his brothers into an act of love. This required him to have foresight and a focus on the big picture.
In the Haftarah portion, Solomon ruled, wisely, that the woman who cared for the baby’s wellbeing was the true mother. We often see Solomon’s original solution—to split the baby in half—as ridiculous. However, in some ways it may have been an intuitive compromise solution: if you don’t know to whom something belongs, you split it in half. But Solomon in his wisdom kept the bigger picture in sight. His composure in the initial offer to split the baby allowed an authentic reaction from the mothers. The true mother acted out of her noble motivation for her end goal—the wellbeing of the baby. Solomon then pivoted away from the surface appearance of justice and ruled by the ultimate goal of justice: the establishment of God’s order. Thus, the true mother won custody.
In the Brit Chadashah portion, the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen to death. I’m sure Stephen felt acute pain from every stone cast at him. But he remembered his great commission, and as they stoned him “he fell on his knees and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’” Stephen’s appeal bore fruit. If we read the text carefully, we notice that, before stoning Stephen, “the witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Saul was the ancient Jewish equivalent of a clerk to the Supreme Court Chief Justice—a high legal authority. The Sanhedrin typically eschewed capital punishment, but Saul, with his legal authority, probably gave the go-ahead to allow people to stone Stephen. And yet, with his last breath, Stephen prayed for his persecutors, Saul among them. Saul later joined Stephen in “fighting the good fight and finishing the good race.” Amazingly, God heard Stephen’s prayer, and did not hold this sin of Saul’s against him. Stephen kept his calm and remembered the end goal God had set for him.
All this begs the question: What is our end game as humans? Based on what the Bible tells us and the witness of God’s work in human history, I think our purpose for existence is to be in relationship with God. That is our perfected nature. We were created by God to be in relationship with God as a member of humanity, and, more specifically for us, as a member of the Jewish nation. And, for humans, to be in relationship with God means to worship God. Let us continually worship God throughout the week, keeping in mind this is our ultimate purpose in life.
The painting featured at the top of this post depicts Joseph dining with his brothers. Artist: Yoram Raanan.