The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Tevet 7, 5771/December 14, 2010

"Don't be afraid, for am I instead of G-d?"
(Genesis 44:32)

Perhaps more than any other figure in the entire book of Genesis, which draws to a close with this week's reading of Vayechi, Yosef understood the division of labor in G-d's world: G-d directs while man does his level best to fill a supporting role. Or, as Shakespeare put it, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players." But whereas Shakespeare's words speak dolefully of the futility of human endeavor, Yosef saw man's role in the opposite light. By maintaining a steady and unshakable belief in G-d's benevolence, man can pursue a purpose on this earth far greater than any motivated by self-interested, and by doing so leave a mark that will far exceed his own fleeting grasp on life. Certainly we witness this in Yosef himself. Whatever wounds he suffered in his one hundred and ten years, whatever human flaws he exhibited, he cast a giant shadow that extends until this very day.

It seems natural to speak of Yosef employing classical terms of drama. After all, he was not merely a player, but also took up the role of director in what may be the most compelling drama played out in the annals of humankind. It was he who set the stage when his brothers first traveled to Egypt, hungry and in search of food. It was he, as director, who first ordered the money to be placed in the brothers satchels, and later the goblet among Binyamin's belongings. And it was Yosef who deftly confronted his unsuspecting brothers, drawing forth from them their own recounting of their earlier crime, their acceptance of the responsibility of their actions, and their determination to make amends. Had he not invisibly guided them through these steps it is doubtful that they could have achieved it on their own. But with the conclusion of this family drama, Yosef retires as director, seeks to return to his original role as brother among brothers, and reasserts that, for all his dabbling in the art, there is really only one true Director,and that is G-d Himself.

We can even consider the book of Genesis, in its entirety, as the first act of an unfolding drama. The curtain rises and the world is being created. And as unsurpassable as that may seem, the dramatic tension continues to intensify throughout each of the first twenty four generations of man, arriving at a crescendo with the scene of Yosef alone with his brothers. And after the crescendo comes the denouement in which the brothers are reconciled and Ya'akov, reunited with Yosef, blesses all the boys, expires and is buried alongside his fathers, back in the land of Israel.

But even before the return of Yosef and his brothers to Egypt we sense a palpable change. A chill seems to have passed between Yosef and Pharaoh. Their relationship has grown formal and distant. In fact, Yosef no longer has direct access to Pharaoh, but must communicate with him through an intermediary: "When the days of his weeping had passed, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh's household, saying, 'If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak now in Pharaoh's ears, saying... '" (Genesis 49:4) He hasn't fallen out of favor with Pharaoh, but, it would seem that, having successfully completed his mission of feeding Egypt he is no longer essential to Pharaoh, no longer the apple of his eye. There will be no lifetime achievement award for Yosef. He dies, and as the book of Genesis comes to a close, the lid slams shut upon Yosef's coffin, and the walls begin to tighten around his remaining brothers and their offspring. The Egyptian honeymoon is over. A very cold "winter of discontent" is about to set in.

As the curtain closes on Genesis we may be tempted to question the virtue of creation. The great promise of "In the beginning" seems to have dissolved into a haphazard world where good deeds are quickly forgotten and selfless acts of kindness are repaid with scorn. It is precisely here where we need more than ever to remind ourselves of Yosef's consoling words to his brothers, "Don't be afraid, for am I instead of G-d?" It is not our task to second-guess all that has transpired or to needlessly speculate at what G-d has in store for Israel in Act II. We're not the Director. But we are the actors He depends upon. We must strive to fulfill our individual roles to the best of our ability.

So we conclude the book of Genesis with a heavy sense of foreboding, which we will dispel with the hearty call of "Chazak, chazak venitchazeik!" which we declare as a congregation at the conclusion of our reading on Shabbat: "Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened!" The curtain is about to rise, Act II is about to commence, and the great epic of enslavement and Exodus is about to take place: Director's cut. We're in very good hands.

Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven express their gratitude for the blessed rain that fell in buckets this week here in the Land of Israel. This current month of Tevet is traditionally considered to be a time of portent and distress, and features a public fast day, the 10th of Tevet, which commemorates a siege around Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the first Holy Temple. Is Jerusalem still besieged... or are its inhabitants just suffering from a siege mentality?

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