This post was given as a sermon at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada on December 12, 2014, Shabbat Vayeshev.
I’m going to start tonight with a personal question, a question I want you to answer only in your own heart:
Was there ever been a time in your life when you felt utterly abandoned by everyone? A time when you felt that the people you depended on had failed you, or turned on you? When you had no friends at all, and you were in awful trouble?
Maybe you have been fortunate, and have never had that experience. If that’s the case, I ask you to imagine it.
That’s exactly the situation our ancestor Joseph is in at the end of this week’s Torah portion. He is sitting in prison. His brothers debated killing him, and instead sold him into slavery. He managed to rise to a position of trust in the household of an important man, and his employer’s wife turned on him. He managed to make an influential friend in prison, and that friend has forgotten him.
There is no question that Joseph started out as a foolish young man.
He was spoiled by his father. When at age 17 he went to his father to tattle on his brothers, Jacob did not teach him about lashon harah. He did not teach Joseph not to talk about others. Instead, Jacob gave him a fancy coat.
Joseph was so naive that it never occurred to him that his brothers’ hatred was serious business.
Those who should have taught him and protected him failed him again and again: His father did not teach him. His brothers turned on him in anger.
And let’s face it, the boy seems to have been pretty clueless.
So he winds up in Egypt, a slave. He has one piece of luck: he is purchased by an important man, Potiphar. He rises to a position of trust in the household. But then, because he is young and foolish, because he has no one to advise him, he makes another mistake.
Just as he failed to see the danger in his brother’s anger, he fails to see the danger in the desire of Potiphar’s wife.
A wiser man would never be alone in the house with her. A wiser man might have made sure there were other servants around at all times. After all, he was the steward of the household! He gave the orders!
Instead, he was accused of a terrible crime for which he had no alibi. His master, furious, put him in prison.
And there he sat, without friends, without family. He was a foreigner. He had been accused of a terrible crime. He had no way to prove his innocence.
Even when he made a friend – Even when it looked like there might be hope, he was forgotten. He had been left to rot.
The chapter ends with Joseph in jail, abandoned.
The next chapter begins two years later, and Joseph seems to be a different man. As foolish as he had been before, Joseph became wise.
The text leaves us to wonder what happened during those two years sitting in Pharaoh’s jail?
When there is a gap in the Biblical story we look to Midrash, to the stories of the rabbis to help us understand.
Midrash tells us that Joseph spent his time in jail learning.
He learned the languages of all the men imprisoned there.
He reflected upon the lessons of his father Jacob,
who had taught him about the One God who demands that we act with justice and kindness.
So the boy who was sold into slavery
The boy who was only interested in himself
Became a man who was interested in other people.
Became a man who learned languages so that he could understand people.
He became a man who reflected not on his own dreams but upon the dreams of others.
Joseph the spoiled brat became Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous Man.
So what’s the lesson here? What’s the point?
One thing we can learn is what to do when, like Joseph, we feel that we have been abandoned by everyone, when everything is hopeless.
We can learn.
Instead of focusing on what others have done to us, we can do what Joseph did: we can learn how to listen and how to talk with others.
Instead of allowing bitterness to fill our souls, or worse yet, plotting our revenge, we can reflect on a God who commands that we act with justice and kindness.
We can learn to let go of “me, me, me” and look beyond ourselves and our own aggrandizement.
Psalm 1 tells us this about the tzaddik, the righteous person:
“His delight is in the Torah of the Eternal; and in God’s Torah he meditates day and night.”
Torah is often translated “Law” but it is more correctly translated “Teaching.” And what Joseph teaches us, and the Psalmist underlines, is that when we feel that things can get no worse, the best thing we can do is learn.
By this I don’t mean “learn our lesson,” although sometimes, that’s one thing we need to do. Rather, I mean something much larger: we need to learn everything we can about how to connect to other people. Because when we are sitting in that lowest place one of the things that has gone wrong is our connections to others.
Torah teaches us many ways to connect:
Abraham teaches hospitality.
Isaac teaches how to get along with angry neighbors.
Jacob teaches us how (and how not to!) deal with our relatives.
Joseph taught us many things, but in his great moment of teshuvah in the prison, he taught us the most important lessons of all:
Learn about ourselves and our mistakes.
Learn about others.
Learn how to speak and to listen to people different from ourselves.
Learn new ways to be with others.
For it is by learning that we grow, it is in learning that we expand our horizons.
It is in learning that we begin to connect with the world outside ourselves.
If we can do that, if we can learn how to go from the narrow prison to the wider world,
We can become agents of our own change,
agents of Torah in the wider world.