“Marketing G-d by Living Example”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, continues one of the great sagas in world literature, the story of Joseph and his brothers. This memorable tale has even become a classic epic novel, Joseph and His Brothers, penned by the great German author, Thomas Mann.

Numerous themes are found in the story of Joseph, each worthy of extensive study and analysis. The dynamics of the family of Joseph, the implications of favoring one child over others, free will and the suspension of free will, what is true Teshuva (repentance), the power of dreams, Jewish assimilation, Jewish economic success, and who is a leader, are just a few of the major themes that are to be found in the Joseph story. Many of these themes may be clearly seen in the biblical text. Often, however, the inner beauty of the story of Joseph is to be found in the subtlety of the narrative text and the many sub-themes that play major roles in the story. One such theme, that is analyzed brilliantly by the Bible commentator Nehama Leibowitz (famed biblical teacher, 1905-1997) in her Studies in Bereshit, is Joseph’s profound belief in G-d, and the impact that Joseph’s faith has on Pharaoh’s own theological views.

One of the truly remarkable aspects of the story of Joseph is that one would think that, after all the hardships that Joseph endures, Joseph would have, long ago, abandoned his belief in a divine being. None of his family members appreciate his greatness. To the contrary, his brothers thoroughly resent him and cast him in a pit. He is sold as a slave to an Egyptian, and, as a result of rejecting his master’s wife’s overtures, is thrown into prison. It would not be unreasonable to assume that, by now, Joseph would have concluded that he had been rejected and abandoned by G-d, and that Joseph would respond to his dreadful formative years by angrily rejecting G-d as well. But this is not so. To the contrary, G-d seems to be the only rudder that keeps Joseph on course. Joseph’s profound faith in G-d is not only his source of morality, it is his source of strength. As the psalmist says (Psalm 27:10), “Kee ah’vee v’ee’mee ah’zah’voo’nee, va’Hashem ya’ahs’phay’nee,” though my father and mother have abandoned me, G-d will gather me in. While many victims of the Shoah responded to their fate by losing their faith in G-d, some survivors found faith.

Whatever Joseph’s reasons were for hanging on to his faith, (perhaps he had no alternative), Joseph comes across as a true person of faith, seeing G-d’s hand in everything he says and does. In Genesis 39:2, scripture boldly informs us that G-d was with Joseph. In Genesis 39:3, we learn that others see the divine hand operating through Joseph: “Va’yar ah’doh’nav kee Hashem ee’toh, v’chol ah’sher hoo oh’seh Hashem matz’lee’ach b’yah’doh,” and his master [Potiphar] saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did prosper in his hand. Undoubtedly, Joseph must have often and loudly proclaimed G-d’s role in his success. Consequently, it is little wonder that divine hand is clearly recognized by Potiphar’s entire household. When Mrs. Potiphar tries to seduce Joseph, Joseph refuses by saying, how can I do this great wrong, “V’cha’ta’tee lEy’lo’kim,” (Genesis 39:9) and I will be sinful against G-d! When Joseph is in the dungeon together with Pharaoh’s butler and baker who are troubled by their dreams, Joseph responds (Genesis 40:8), “Ha’lo lEy’lo’kim pit’roh’nim,” Do not interpretations belong to G-d?

After Pharaoh dreams two enigmatic dreams, Pharaoh’s butler recalls the Jewish slave boy who favorably interpreted his own dream. Joseph is rushed to the court of Pharaoh, freed, perhaps only temporarily, in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. When Pharaoh says to Joseph (Genesis 41:15) that he’s heard of his reputation as a dream interpreter, Joseph does not hesitate to take issue with Pharaoh and proudly proclaim the name of G-d. (Genesis 41:16) “Bil’ah’dai, Eh’lo’kim ya’ah’neh et sh’loam Paroh,” It is not I! G-d shall provide Pharaoh an answer of peace.

Nehama Leibowitz underscores Joseph’s relentless efforts to convey his message of the role of Providence in guiding the world. When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he cites the name of G-d three times, and, against all rules of syntax, inserts G-d’s name twice in the last verse, in order to emphasize the central role that G-d plays. Before interpreting the dream of the seven ears of corn, Joseph says,(Genesis 41:25): “Ayt ah’sher ha’Eh’lo’kim oh’seh hee’geed l’Pharaoh,” what G-d is about to do, he has declared onto Pharaoh. Then, before interpreting the dream of the seven fat cows and the thin cows, once again Joseph declares (Genesis 41:28) “Ah’sher ha’Eh’lo’kim oh’seh, her’ah et Pharaoh,” what G-d is about to do, he has shown to Pharaoh. When explaining the reason for the repetitive dream, Joseph again states (Genesis 41:32): “Kee na’chon ha’davar may’im ha’Eh’lo’kim oo’m’ma’hayr ha’Eh’lo’kim, la’ah’so’toh,” for the thing is established by G-d, and G-d will quickly bring it to pass.

The impact of Joseph’s subtle, and not so subtle, messages about G-d’s very active involvement, is immediately apparent. Not only is Joseph’s interpretation directly recognized as the correct interpretation, but Pharaoh can not resist saying about Joseph (Genesis 41:38) “Ha’nim’tzah cha’zeh eesh ah’sher roo’ach Eh’lo’kim bo?!” Is there to be found another one such as this, a man in whom the spirit of G-d is present?! Nehama Leibowitz points out that this must be the first time that a Pharaoh, king of Egypt, defers to a supreme King of Kings. How remarkable that Joseph achieved this transformation in Pharaoh, not by preaching, not by cajoling, not by lecturing, but by example.

It takes a very unusual person to be able to convey such spiritual messages publicly, and yet leave others with a favorable impression of G-d. The Jewish community of the 21st century is fortunate to have two notable examples. Both Senator Joseph Lieberman and the recent Nobel Prize winner, Professor Robert J. Aumann, have been a profound source of Kiddush Hashem–sanctification of G-d’s name, in the world. While achieving great acclaim in their chosen fields, they have both proudly proclaimed their faith in G-d and their practice of Jewish tradition.

While few of us can hope to achieve the world-class stature that both of these exceptional people have achieved, each of us can sanctify G-d’s name in our own personal way, by conducting our lives in a manner that brings pride and honor to both Judaism and to G-d. May we merit to have those who look at us say about us those incredible words of Pharaoh: “Is there to be found another one such as this, a person in whom the spirit of G-d is present?!”

May you be blessed.