Towards the end of the 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption, inmate Red is asked by the parole board if he regrets what he did 40 years earlier (he had killed someone). He says, “I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left.” Redemption.
Redemption is one of the indirect themes of the story of Yosef. Today we experience the first meeting between him and his brothers since that day 17 years earlier that they sold him down the desert to Egypt. It’s a meeting fraught with irony. Yosef, the dreamer the brothers had thrown into a pit and then sold to passing nomads has arisen from the depths of the pit, and then from the depths of prison to the position of viceroy of Egypt, with the power of life and death over all those before him. In other words, the childhood dreams that had driven his brothers crazy have come true.
As for the brothers, they bow before him as in Yosef’s earliest dreams, unaware that they are fulfilling the destiny foretold in those dreams. But they too have undergone changes. The Torah doesn’t give us details but something has happened to them. Maybe it was seeing their father grieving for 17 years, without respite, over the lost son they had made disappear, Maybe, as with Red in the movie, they have finally grasped the fact that they had gone too far, had allowed the incessant pitter-patter of a spoiled brother to infect their minds to the point of indirect murder.
Yosef is in a position both enviable and unenviable. Enviable because he can take emotional revenge on his brothers. Unenviable because if they are beyond redemption, he may be tempted to impose real punishment on them.
Because Yosef has changed too, from a spoiled brat to an intelligent, God-fearing person who simply wants closure for his wish, as he expressed it last week. To the unnamed “man” who asks him what he seeks, Yosef answers: “It is my brothers I seek.” We can understand it as his wish to physically find his brothers, or more symbolically to find and bond with his brothers and become one of the family with them. At this juncture, he can “lose” them as they lost him, or “find” them, as he truly wishes. It depends on them.
The fact that the brothers are unnerved by having to talk about their missing brother indicates that their earlier actions have not given them rest over the years. Those covert actions are their skeleton in the closet, yet here it is, dancing in the daylight.
Although Yosef is only in his early thirties now, he has a lot of experience to draw on. He has seen how thinking mainly of himself has only led to problems. His early dreams, his haughtiness in the home of Potiphar where he lorded it over the others. He has learned that using his blessed personality and superb people skills to help others – works better. Up to a point.
He helped the Officer of the Cups by telling him he would be returned to his previous job but when he asked him to put in a good word for him, for Yosef, his request was filed and forgotten. It was not the right time.
When he comes before Pharaoh, he knows he has only this one chance. So after he does his dream-interpreting shtick, he puts in another word of his own, not directly for self-aggrandizement but to help Pharaoh resolve the problem that Yosef revealed from the dreams. And if helping others helps himself, nobody loses.
This attitude spills over to his brothers as well. He wants to help them but they have to be worthy of his help. He can’t let them roam free if there’s a chance they’ll do the same to his younger brother Benjamin should the opportunity arise. So he puts them through tests, with what we would call hard love. Next week we see whether they pass the tests.
Love, hard, soft or medium is something that seems to be in short supply in our political situation, and in politics around the world. If we take a long view, we seem to be undergoing a test of some sort – and doing even worse than our school kids did in the PISA test – in terms of getting along.
We are so far over the red lines delineated by the prophets in terms of honesty, justice and caring for the weak, that the question is not IF but WHEN the lightning will strike. I personally am surprised that we have not heard from the ultras that all the deaths from road accidents are actually punishment from an angry God (aided and abetted by human error).
Hope, however weak, springs eternal. The Chanukah holiday shows that we can prevail even against great odds, if we put our mind to it. And if the Hasmoneans were able to get the Jewish act together, and Yosef and his brothers kissed and made up, sort of, we too can change. Al hanissim.
Shabbat Shalom, Chanuka Sameach