Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah is a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully
as our awareness evolves.

Torah Portion for the week of December 9 - 15, 2018:

(Genesis 44:18 - 47:27)

Joseph tests his brothers

We continue with the story of Joseph, a relatively long narrative in the Book of Genesis detailing the life and times of Jacob's first son with his beloved Rachel. Toward the end of the previous portion, Miketz, Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to buy food, the famine predicted by Joseph having affected all the countries in the area. Since they thought him long dead, they did not recognize him. Joseph proceeded to test them to determine whether they had outgrown their lives of deceit.

When he secretly returned their money to their bags of grain, they brought that money back to him, demonstrating their honesty. When Joseph demanded they bring his younger brother, Benjamin, they at first refused, fearing that their father would lose another precious son. Finally, when they returned again for food, bringing Benjamin with them, Judah, the eldest of the brothers, pleaded with Joseph, saying that it would be the death of their father were Benjamin to remain behind.

Now therefore, I beg you, let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brothers. (44:33)

But now they have passed Joseph's tests, and he finally reveals his identity to his brothers. One can only imagine their level of their shock and disbelief.

And Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph... And his brothers could not answer him; for they were troubled by his presence. (45:3)

Joseph immediately attempts to assuage the weight of guilt and shame they feel as they realize that this man whom they now serve is actually their brother.

But be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life... But God sent me before you to preserve you and your family, and to keep many of you alive. (45:5, 7)

Instead of blame and punishment

Joseph repeats this communication, perhaps seeing what a challenge it is for his brothers to accept. Instead of the blame and punishment they feel they deserve, Joseph speaks an entirely different message.

So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. (45:8)

He invites them to return to their home in Canaan so that they might bring their entire family to join him in Egypt.

And you shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you, and your children, and your grandchildren, and your flocks, and your herds, and all that you have. (45:10)

Whether the brothers can escape their sense of guilt and shame is left to next week's parashah. What strikes us here is the incredible consistency of the message that Joseph speaks, when he tells them that the entire drama was God's way of preserving the life of Jacob and his family. Once again, Joseph snatches greater meaning from a negative situation.

A guide to activating our contributive self

Joseph's ability to find meaning in moments of difficulty is an inspiration to us all. How much of our energy is devoted to bemoaning the painful things that we have experienced? We so easily slip into self-righteousness proving we are justified in our upset, right to be resentful and angry at the people and events whom we experience doing us wrong.

Our resentments, of course, keep us from living in the moment. Our angers keep us anchored to the past. Again and again through the saga of Joseph, we witness him claiming purpose where most of us would be self-righteously proclaiming how we had been wronged.

And here's the key: When we take responsibility for ourselves in the present moment, there is no longer any space for blame. We are too busy stepping into the current situation and finding our purpose there.

Some years ago, I heard a teaching from a priest who was president of Gonzaga University. Father Robert Spitzer gave a very useful way of talking about the two faces of ego, the two inclinations of the separate self.
  • The lower face of ego he called the "comparative ego," and explained that it operated by comparing ourselves not only to others but also to our own ideas of how we are supposed to be in the world. The comparative ego lives in the world of things, seeking the "right" things that will make us happy. It operates by accumulating the externals that can demonstrate success, fame, power, and control. The comparative ego seeks its own self-satisfaction.
  • The upper face of ego he called the "contributive ego," the part of us that asks, in each and every situation in which we find ourselves, "How can I make things better here?" The contributive ego might use the skills developed by the comparative ego, but those skills are turned to help others. The joy gained through the contributive ego far outweighs what temporary happiness the comparative ego can bring us.
The Joseph story provides ample support for Joseph's unhappiness, yet he consistently avoids wasting his energy on blame and resentment. Joseph gives us, through his actions, a guide to activating our own contributive self.

Writing Prompts

When I self-righteously complain about my predicament, I find. . .
If I were to believe that I am here on purpose, I would. . .
If I am here to make things better, I would. . .

Focus Phrases

I take responsibility for being where I am right now.
I find greater purpose in this present moment.
I am here to be of service.

Photo: Mark Reden