The scene in which Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers is emotionally charged and powerfully transmitted to us. Overcome by his feelings in response to Judah’s plea that him that he keep Judah as his slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph clears the room and, left alone with his brothers, he introduces himself and asks the urgent question: “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?” I am Joseph. Does my father still live?” Unsurprisingly the brothers are too shocked to respond, so Joseph has to continue and introduce himself in a slightly different way – “Ani Yosef achee’chem – I am Joseph your brother.” Then he begins to reassure his stricken brothers, pointing out to them how the whole chain of events that has brought them here must be managed by God, from the selling of Joseph in Dotan to the famine which had brought them all to Egypt. The reconciliation between brothers, a theme that has been avoided since Cain killed Abel at the beginning of Genesis is finally happening, with the stated guilt and repentance on the part of the wrong doers, the punishment exacted by the wronged party, the forgiveness on both sides – and the recognition of God’s part in the problem all along.
All the way through the Book of Genesis, God has been actively and some may say unhelpfully present in the text, creating situations for people to deal with as best they can, which generally isn’t too edifying for us to read. Adam and Eve are faced with a forbidden yet deeply tempting fruit tree in their perfect garden- Why? When they do the inevitable, what happens? Adam blames Eve, she blames the snake, and they are all forced to move on. When Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is not – well why not? We know that there was nothing special about either, but the anger of the rejected Cain led to fratricide within the earliest chapters of the book. Look where else God meddled – the destruction of Tower of Babel when people were getting on so well together but now were scattered and unable to communicate with each other; Abraham told to bind his beloved son Isaac as an offering for God, and consequently damaging his relationship with Isaac (and God) irreparably. Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb, predestined to have an unequal relationship. And yet no one calls God on it, no one confronts God’s role until Joseph does.
Joseph, the assimilated Jew. The man who to all intents and purposes became Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, and Egyptian wife, and Egyptian children. Joseph, the boy who dreamed his dreams, who showed little of what we might call spirituality in his vanity laden adolescence. Yet paradoxically it is Joseph who describes himself as one who fears God – et ha’elohim ani yarei (42:18).
It is a curious verb – yod resh alef – meaning “to venerate, be in awe or fear”. Until Joseph’s use of it, it is not used positively, nor is it used about God, – except once in the akedah when God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, for now he knows he is a Godfearing man (ki yarei elohim ata Gen 22:12) But it is already too late in Abraham’s case, for whatever the test was up on that mountain, Abraham had not passed it for he never spoke to his son Isaac or to God again.
Only Joseph describes himself as one who is in awe of God, who fears and admires and reverences God. And only Joseph uses this verb in a positive way – that he will be, to coin a phrase, honest decent and truthful in his dealings with the foreigners whom only he knows to be his brothers. It is Joseph’s use of the verb to describe himself and the positive essential value which drives him, which makes him the candidate to effect the sibling reconciliation which has for so long been so elusive in the family story. Finally there is a person who sees yirat adonai, the fear and awe of God, as a positive statement about themselves and their lives. It is the characteristic which enables the person to know a little about the Almighty with whom they are dealing, to know a little about how little they know, to avoid the cosiness which can beset such a relationship and also the projections which can blur it. Yirat adonai is, as the psalmist wrote, “t’horah, omedet la’ad” – pure, standing forever. (Ps19) – it enables us to be clear eyed in our dealings with God, and to understand a little, and engage a little. So it is no surprise that towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is able to see God’s part in the events of his life, and, once his brothers have shown their shame and their unhappiness at what they did, (and Joseph has satisfied his own need to show how his early dreams were indeed correct), that he is able to acknowledge and forgive not only his brothers part in the way his life has turned out, but also God’s part in it too.
The search for meaning in our lives is something we all do, whether in a religious structure, or in another philosophical framework or setting. Those of us who use the religious tradition find in it many complex and often mutually incompatible things. We can be overwhelmed by the richness of interpretations, constrained by our own needs and our own baggage.
Interestingly, that same psalmist who praised yirat adonai, listed his six stakes of Judaism as being
Torat Adonai (the Teaching of God), Edut Adonai (the Evidence of God), Pikudei Adonai (the Duties of God), Mitzvat Adonai (the Commandments of God), Yirat Adonai (the Fear of God) and Mishp’tei Adonai (the Judgments of God). Taken together in the poem they make a bridge that links heaven and earth. No mention is made of a required belief, or of much that people often say is core to religion- instead there is teaching and witnessing, doing and considering, acting and fearing – these are what bring people closer to God.
Joseph, Egyptianised, assimilated, the boy who never tried to contact his home again, is saying in this statement about himself that he never lost his love for his roots, that he was religious in his own way, in the best way – for he was one who could say “et ha elohim ani yarei”.
The episode where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reconciled with them takes place within one chapter. The beginning of it is bound by the question that Joseph asks his brothers “Ha’od avi chai?” -does my father still live? The end is marked by Jacob’s disbelieving statement “Rav, Od Yosef b’ni chai” It is too much – Joseph my son yet lives.
The echo is too deliberate, too obvious to miss. The whole episode is a complex and beautiful literary structure, and at its heart is the point where Joseph kissed all his brothers, and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him. It is for this that Jacob still lived, for this that Joseph’s life was spared. The reconciliation enables us to finally close that first chapter in the moral development of humanity, when it can be shown that even great and terrible hurts can be forgiven and laid to rest. All it takes is Yirat Adonai: not the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God, not the fearful and self serving one that Cain had, nor the argumentative one Abraham had, nor the timid one of Isaac nor the bargaining one of Jacob. The first important person we have in the text who didn’t have a vision or a face to face conversation was the first person to make explicit that he could see God’s hand in his life. Joseph was the first to describe God’s part in his misery as well as his great prosperity. Joseph was the first to lay responsibility not only on his brothers but also on his God. Yirat Adonai is the prerequisite to relationship with God, it is the first step towards a brit, a covenant of mutual obligation. With the possible exception of Moses’ view of the back of God, or his death at the kiss of God, we never again see God quite so intimate nor so cosy as he was with the Patriarchs, but Joseph, the link between the Patriarchs and the Peoplehood, gives us another way to God, the way we have to this day. To live our lives with a sense of the awe and mystery of God, to relate to God as a Power so large and transcendent who yet relates to us, to make our decisions in the light of that sense of God, that is a way to truly be religious. Whether we are dati or hiloni, Orthodox, orthoprax, scriptural literalists, innovative halachists or identify with any of the many streams within Jewish practise and identity, however we express our religious sense this sidra reminds us that to have a sense of awe about God, to be y’rei Adonai, is the core of our religion. And from this sense of awe and awareness, everything else can flow.