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Joseph's FaceTime #758

12/23/2022 04:30:05 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Yayeshev/Miketz:
"Why do you look so downcast today?” (Genesis 40:7)

Joseph’s FaceTime

Recently, I read an article describing three phases children go through as they relate to their parents.

“First my children saw me as a goddess,” noted the author. “Then during their teenage years I became stupid, but then I became wise again as they entered their 20’s and went out into the world.”

Scientists have studied this transition. They note that the way young people interact with the world has something to do with the development of certain parts of the brain.

Ultimately, as young people pass the threshold of 25 years of age, they begin focusing less on their immediate experience, and move toward a more inclusive and caring view of the world.

In many ways, the Torah walks us through this transition, both last week and this week, through the story of Joseph, as we learn perhaps one of the most important lessons in all of Judaism.

But first let’s review.

In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph at 17, exhibits many traits of a gifted teenager. He is favored. He is self-centered and conceited. He is pampered and egotistical.

He has no empathy — only arrogance — as he shares two dreams, which predict that his family will one day serve him.

If this were 2022, Joseph would be sharing every dream, every experience, every accomplishment on Facebook.

No wonder his brothers hated him. 

But over time, Joseph evolves. He is thrown into a pit, rescued, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned after being falsely accused of sexual assault.

And during his time in prison, he develops humility, transitioning from Joseph the arrogant to Joseph the wise.

Many of us experience that same life process. In part, the challenges and suffering we endure make us who we are.

Last week, the Torah described how one morning, Joseph takes note of two distraught fellow inmates. He asks: “Why do you look so downcast today?” (Genesis 40:7).

Earlier in his life, Joseph would never have considered this sentiment. He was too focused on his own life, oblivious to those around him.

The imprisoned baker and cupbearer share their dreams, and Joseph agrees to interpret. But he makes one thing clear:

“It is God who interprets dreams.” (Genesis 40:8)

What a transition. Joseph notices the pain of his fellow inmates and calls upon a higher power to help bring them clarity.

In prison, he has developed humility by — according to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas — opening his soul to “the face of others.”

In this week’s parashah, Joseph continues his journey as he is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. His success earns him the appointment as Egypt’s Prime Minister, and this places him, during a time of famine, in a position to secure food for his estranged family.

In many ways, Joseph’s story and his evolution capture the essence of what it means to be Jewish.

Levinas wrote that in part, how we evolve as human beings, is linked to the idea that God can be found in the face of others.

He wrote that Judaism’s “humanistic concern for our fellow human beings, speaks the voice of God.”

Looking into the "naked" faces of others develops compassion, as we consider the feelings and the plight of those who may not necessarily look, pray, love or believe as we do.

Thirty-six times, the Torah, reminds us to take care of the stranger, to truly “see their faces.”

It reminds us of how Moses originally became involved in public service. He observes the face of cruelty as an Egyptian overlord beats a Jewish slave.

He strikes down the overlord, launching both his personal journey and Judaism’s future.

Levinas’ concept of considering “the face of the other” is central to Judaism.

We learn through Joseph’s personal evolution that life is not just based upon immediate victories and egotism, but rather upon challenges, setbacks and even some suffering.

For as Levinas taught, when we embrace life with humility and empathy, we create space for God.

Joseph learns this over the course of a difficult life. His journey also inspires us to reflect upon our own lives.

In spite of so many technological advances and numerous social media platforms, experts note that more people — especially teens — feel more alone than ever.

It behooves us to reach out of our comfort zone and consider the “face of the other.”

It is one reason why our tradition respects and exalts Joseph’s journey perhaps more than any other biblical character.

He is given the unique title Yosef HaTzadikJoseph the Wise.

Joseph achieved this status not by focusing on himself — as he did in his youth — but rather by looking into faces of others and asking, “Why do you look so downcast today?”

The world these days could use many more Josephs.

For indeed, as we learn through Joseph the Wise, Judaism is founded upon humility and empathy.

Sometimes it takes a lifetime to achieve. 

But it is ultimately our national destiny to channel the pain we have endured — individually and as a people — to consider the faces of others, as we work to repair this broken and imperfect world.

There are many enduring lessons to be learned through Joseph’s journey.

Perhaps, as the Torah inspires us to consider through his story, it’s time for less Facebook and more face-to-face.

Shabbat shalom. Chag Chanukah Sameach.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784