- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

NEW YORK, Jan. 10 (UPI) — (In this 89th installment of the United Press International series of sermons, Peter Rubinstein, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York, reflects on the story of Joseph and his brothers).

This sermon is based on Genesis 45:1

Joseph is not included in the list of the founding patriarchs of our people. Though his story is told with much more detail and many more episodes than Isaac's, for instance, our tradition doesn't attach Joseph's name to our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob either in liturgy or historical memory.

It is as though our forebears made a point of leaving Joseph off the "A" List.

Today we look at a later time of Joseph's life — years after Joseph had been sold into slavery as a teenager by his brothers, and served as a slave in Potipha's house, as a prisoner in Pharaoh's jails. In today's text, Joseph is a vizier in the court, second only to Pharaoh and responsible for dispersing food to supplicants begging for it during a time of famine.

It is in this context that Joseph's brothers arrive from Canaan, sent by their father to procure grain. For this reason, too, that they appear before their brother, Joseph, without knowing who he is.

Joseph recognizes his brothers and toys with them. He commands them to bring their younger brother Benjamin, which they do despite their protests. Then Joseph entraps them by having his troops plant a cup in Benjamin's back pack and bringing them under guard to face the consequences of the set-up.

Joseph tells them that they can all go free, that is all of them except Benjamin who must remain as an indentured servant.

Indeed, Joseph has replicated exactly the conditions of his own sad episode when his brothers plotted to kill him and then sold him into slavery.

Just as he, Joseph, the older son of Jacob and Rachel, had vanished from Jacob's life, now Benjamin was about to be taken from Jacob. Just as Joseph was the beloved son of Rachel, so Benjamin was the remaining beloved son of Rachel.

Just as Jacob had a special love for Joseph, his next-to the youngest of all his sons, so Jacob had a special love for Benjamin, the youngest of his sons.

By entrapping Benjamin and threatening him with slavery, Joseph created the same circumstances from his life, when he was sold to slavery. And the question for Joseph was how his brothers would behave this time.

Had they changed? Did they now show sensitivity to their father, a sensitivity they had previously lacked? Would they who had not cared for Joseph show concern for Benjamin this tome?

Would they confront the sadness and the anguish of their lives with integrity? Would they face up to accountability? Would they shoulder the burden of their own guilt, misbehavior, and responsibility?

Before Joseph revealed himself, he had to be sure that his brothers had evolved into decency. He wanted to embrace his siblings only if they stood on common ground with him. In other words, he wanted to be certain that they were concerned for the well being of each other.

Joseph does not have to wait long. Judah, one of Leah's children, steps forward, recounts the plight and sorrow of their father; he acknowledges that he could not bear to add to his father Jacob's sadness which would be so profound without Benjamin, that it could kill him. In an eloquent act of sacrifice, Judah offers to remain as a slave in Benjamin's stead.

The spirit of Judah's self-sacrifice resonated throughout the halls of Pharaoh's domain, and so Joseph could no longer refrain himself. Convinced by Judah's courageous eloquence he sent all but his family away. And no one stood with him as Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.

It was a moment of overwhelming emotional impact, an instant of direct unadorned honesty for Joseph and no one stood with him. How could that be?

Joseph's brothers still stood with him and if he wanted, every one of his servants could have been with him. It was a moment of truth, a time of utter honesty.

Joseph knew, that despite what anyone else could tell him, despite those who would urge him to punish his brothers for what they did, despite the tendency to gather support for what he should do, Joseph understood he needed to stand alone.

Only he could make the decision as to the future quality of his life. Only he could determine what was right and honest and good. "And there was not another person with him."

Both Joseph and his brothers had traversed the intervening sad years of their lives, knowing of the losses they had all suffered, and it is at this juncture, when they strip all masks away, naked in the aloneness of their ethical center and responsible for the quality of their own character, each stood alone.

At this moment these brothers saw each other and themselves for who and what they were.

All of us hope that in the years of our lives, with increasing experience, and fuller understanding, we would be shaped by enhanced sensitivity. We hope that we would gain greater comprehension and compassion, and that we would be more fully open the people around us, especially the people who are dear to us.

If life's experiences teach us, it must be that lines drawn in the sand across which we fight our battles can be senseless and that in the end when we stand alone we need to listen to the best of ourselves to know what is right and good decent.

When we stand alone we best abandon anger and hearken to the persuasion of the best of our character and to integrity, which opens us to accept the foibles and failures, as well as to the longings and growth of other people, especially the people about whom we care most.

In the end we stand alone in determining what is right and proper and good, for each of us and for all of us together.

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