Sermon: Breaking the Cycle

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 January 2020

In the rabbinic imagination, on their way home from Canaan, having buried Jacob, Joseph took his brothers on an unexpected – and to them, quite terrifying – detour. While the bible merely tells us that having buried his father, Joseph returns to Egypt, the Midrash Tanchuma adds the following:
“At the time when they were returning from the burial of their father they saw their brother going off to… the pit into which they had thrown him”.

We can imagine the horror they must have felt.
At the beginning of this long story, they had mistreated Joseph terribly, first throwing him into a pit to die, and then selling him to passing Midianites. Now, with their father buried, he was choosing to revisit this incident!

Surely this meant that Joseph – to them their arrogant, boastful, manipulative, and now all-powerful brother – was going to take his revenge. Everything in their story together suggested it would be so. As the midrash continues, “When they saw this they cried out, ‘Now that our father is dead, Joseph will hate us and will fully pay us back for all the evil which we did to him.’”

On one level we might have understood. We might have understood the desire for revenge on those who had treated him so badly, taken him from the comfort of his childhood home, those who had only wished him ill until they needed him later in life.

But this is not what he has in mind at all.
Rather, the text tells us, at the pit he recites a blessing: Baruch ha-makom she’asah li neis ba-makom ha-zeh – Blessed be God who God performed a miracle for me in this place.”

What’s going on here? Why do the rabbis add this event, this new idea, to the story?

One aspect of this midrash is that the rabbis are stressing what is sometimes referred to, rather pompously, in biblical literary analysis as ‘dual causality’. Many biblical stories can be seen as working on two levels – apparent human events on one level, and a divine plan on another. The midrash is bringing the two together. Indeed, Joseph himself says in the biblical account, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good”. Joseph understood that that terrible moment of fraternal hatred had to happen for him to end up in Egypt. Indeed, without it, all the following events, slavery, Exodus, revelation, could not have taken place. The rabbis are always keen to place God more firmly in these human stories, so this midrash seeks to emphasise the duality in the text.

But as so often with midrash there is another idea here too.
The midrash presents Joseph as doing something truly extraordinary. Accepting the past, accepting that story, and moving on. He recognises that that which has happened has happened, acknowledges it with ritual, then chooses not to dwell upon it, not to bring it back up. It is part of his story, it is not to be forgotten, but it will not define his present, or the relationships that he forms.

By taking him back to the place in which he was wronged, the rabbis stress that Joseph in our portion makes a choice, to make a decisive break in a cycle of recrimination, of blame and vengeance. He chooses to see what has happened in as generous a way as possible for the sake of his relationships, to recognise the possibility of change, in himself and in others.

It is not an easy choice to make. But it is a crucial one.

This week, we have once again stood nervously on the edge of conflict. There has been a welcome reduction in tension at least for now, a de-escalation, a stepping back – if only a few steps – from the edge of something worse. But to have real hope, to have any real confidence that things will not once again flare, that depends on the ability of those involved to be like Joseph at that moment. To make a choice – to stand down from their brinkmanship, to place themselves at the point of conflict and pain and yet to be willing to break the cycle; to be as generous as possible, to prioritize the needs of the present over the events of the past.

Of course, this is not just true in the world of international relations but also in our own lives, in our personal politics, in our communities in our families. It is any incredibly hard thing to do to move beyond the wrongs that we perceive others as having done to us. To be like Joseph, recognising that that which has happened has happened, that it has brought us to now for good and ill, but that it need not define our ongoing relationships.

Last week Rabbi Hannah spoke about Judah as an exemplar of change in our lives. Joseph’s example here challenges us not just to change ourselves but to choose to accept our stories, to accept what has happened, and to be open to change in others with generosity and love.

Why does this matter so much?
The biblical text tells us that in their fear, and one imagines, their shame, the brothers send a message to Joseph. They tell him that before he died Jacob had left an instruction for Joseph: that he was to forgive them for everything they had done to him. The only problem is that nowhere else is this described in the text. As the midrash says, “We have searched and not found that Jacob ever commanded this thing”. The brothers, it seems, invent a deathbed message for their own benefit, lie to save their own necks.

This should, surely, be a source of outrage for the rabbis?

In fact, the rabbis approach this moment not as an outrage but as a moment of learning, teaching us that peace between people is so important that it even justifies untruth. The Talmud, citing this moment in the biblical text, says mutar lo l’adam l’shanot bi-dvar hashalom… it is permitted for a person to deviate [from the truth] in a matter of peace. Or, as it is expressed in a separate work known as Derech Eretz Zuta (in a section referred to as ‘the Chapter on Peace’): All manner of lying is prohibited, unless it is to make peace bein adam l‘chavero – between a person and their fellow.

Our midrash takes this a step further. But how can it be that the Torah, the word of God as they understood it, can contain words which are false like this? Bo u’r’eih kamah gadol koach hashalom, it says, come and see how great is the power of peace that God will even write false words in the Torah for the sake of peace.

We sometimes forget with our emphasis on personal justice, our focus on the stories we bring, in our prioritization of personal truth, that in our tradition all these are secondary. Peace is the fundamental ideal. How great is peace, as Derech Eretz Zuta states, that it is even one of the names of God, Adonai shalom.

“At the time when they were returning from the burial of their father, they saw their brother going off to… the pit into which they had thrown him”.  In the imagination of the rabbis Joseph returns to the place of his pain and his brothers’ shame not with the intent to revisit or to get revenge but merely to say a blessing. To mark this place and time with ritual, and then to move on.

Can we do the same?
Can we place ourselves back in the pit of our lives, the darkest places of our stories – for each of us have them – and find it in ourselves like Joseph to move beyond them for the sake of peace?