Dissonant Doubles: The Trouble With Joseph

Double Joseph Coats.png

I have a beef with Joseph. The Joseph in the Torah. The rainbow dreamer. The tender, braggy kid who is bullied by his brothers and mercilessly sold by them into slavery. Ok, maybe it wasn’t the most tactful idea to share with his brothers his dreams about ruling over them one day. But on balance, that’s just being the youngest sibling; Joseph’s dreams are not the source of my beef.

My beef with Joseph also isn’t that he matured into a tender, smart, enterprising young man who served his employers faithfully, loved his father deeply, and missed his brothers so much that he finally forgave them for almost killing and then selling him (but not without making them sweat a little first). I love the Joseph who saved his whole family from famine and brought them to live near him in Egypt. 

I have no beef with Joseph having saved Egypt, as well as many foreign, starving refugees, during a period of great famine.

Just to be clear: I love the story of Joseph. Every year I get more emotional reading it. I see my son in that tender boy and weeping young man; I see my daughter in Joseph’s ability to both dream for himself and intuitively understand others’ dreams. I see both my kids in the (only slightly exaggerated) sibling rivalry. Drawn in, no doubt, by the novella-like style in which this chunk of Torah is written, I deeply identify with Joseph. These days, when I get to the part where the Torah says, “Joseph could no longer control himself” for the love and emotion he felt toward his brothers (Gen 45:1), and he breaks down crying, I always seem to have a little something caught in my eye.

And the happy ending for Jacob’s clan? Love it. The Broadway musical based on this story (of which I can sing you every song and all the interim narration) resolves with a rousing number as Father Jacob travels down to Egypt with his entire family to re-unite with all his sons. Joseph settles his family comfortably in choicest land of the region and sustains them all, “down to the little ones” (Gen 47:12). They are well-fed and cared for, with the blessing of Pharaoh himself.

What’s not to like about Joseph?

It’s the story after the story: After Israel descends to Egypt, the intimate portrait of Joseph’s inner life ends, and the Torah resumes at a faster, more fable-like narrative clip, detailing the career of the mature Joseph in the later years of famine and beyond.

While Joseph settles his family comfortably in Egypt, his approach to the Egyptian people appears to shift course: He capitalizes on the famine by selling back to the hungry Egyptians their own food -- the food he had initially collected from them in the preceding years of plenty. In exchange for this food, “Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace” (Gen 47:14). When the people run out of money, Joseph acquires first their livestock and then their land for Pharaoh. He provides the people with seed to plant, and institutes an ongoing tax of one-fifth of each family’s harvest. In short, the end of Parshat Vayiggash explains how bit by bit, Joseph diverts the country’s wealth into Pharaoh’s coffers, and converts the Egyptian farmers into serfs. Thanks to Joseph, Israel emerges from the famine in good shape, Pharaoh emerges vastly enriched, and the people of Egypt and Canaan emerge severely impoverished.  

WHAT?

Joseph, a ruthless capitalist who exploits the people under his charge and enriches Pharaoh at their expense? This does not square with the tender, generous Joseph I still hold in my heart from the previous chapter.

Frankly, I don’t know what to do with the end of this story. A mere chapter ago I was crying with Joseph. But how can I read this part of the story and not hold him accountable? How do I grapple with the disconnect between the two Josephs – the generous, vulnerable Joseph whom I love and with whom I identify, and the Joseph who betrays and harms the people under his care?

Individually, the many colliding texts of which the Torah is comprised never intended for me to have to grapple with two versions of Joseph (or for that matter, two versions of Creation, or the Akedah). But those who complied and redacted the Torah texts, placing different accounts next to each other, perhaps saw here a deeper truth: In real life, those two Josephs can, and frequently do, reside in the same person.

Listening to the Supreme Court Justice hearings this past September and reading various opinions afterward, I realized that some of the nominee’s professional peers in Washington were grappling with two Josephs: The one they had known for years on the bench, and the one they were now getting a taste of as they witnessed his blustering, ballistic, and entitled behavior at the nomination hearing.

Dr. Blasey Ford already knew the latter Joseph. As is often the case with women, children, transfolk, people of color, and others who are vulnerable, she was forced to experience that Joseph while many others were either blithely unaware of the harm he was causing, or worse, his accomplices.

Most striking for me about those two weeks of the hearing was this: Dr. Ford’s testimony traversed the public sphere and sent tremors of recognition through the minds and bodies of everyone in the nation who has ever known anything along the spectrum of the fear and violation she described.

Those tremors shook our hearts and frazzled our nerves, waking many of us at night and besetting us with panic attacks, fits of sobbing, and headaches. The #MeToo movement was an awakening, and when Dr. Ford’s testimony hit, the effect was immediate, widespread, and deeply personal. Conversations, realizations, pain seemed to abound on women and transfolk’s social media groups and chat boards. There was suddenly not enough public or private space in which to place all this stirred-up emotion and body memory; internal cyclones that had long been tamped down spiraled through us, stirred by the external conversation. And then a week later, poof: The Supreme Court confirmation went through, the news cycle moved on, and save for a few brave and defiant news segments, public discussion of what Dr. Ford had said stopped. We resumed the daily work of our lives, consumed the ever-renewing breaking news, and stopped talking about the revolution that had just swept through our bodies.

But I’ve been thinking about all of us. I’ve been thinking especially about those of us still living or working in situations where both Josephs reside in someone whom we love or see every day. As we saw with Dr. Blasey Ford, it is hard enough to call out a stranger who has harmed us. If we are harmed by someone we love and on whom we depend, or even someone who is just a daily part of our reality, calling them out is so much harder. We run multiple risks in naming the harm: We risk harming our sense of who we are, and in many cases we risk our own well-being, our only source of support, our jobs, or our lives.

Multiple risks can quickly translate into multiple silence.

As a musician, I value silence. But not that kind of silence, stifled and fearful. In the face of that silence, my goal is to do what I can to make spaces where those silences can become voices. My wish and blessing for all of us, as we immerse ourselves in this season of longest nights, is that we are able to use our voices - and help others to use theirs - as beacons of light. Helping someone to find their voice can mean just asking the person closest to you how they are doing in the wake of September or all that’s happened since. And then listening to the answer, with empathy, and without trying to immediately fix it. Yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will) that we find the space - in our homes and in our public realms - for these conversations to not be ground back under the gears of the fickle news cycle, but to continue to shine forth, flourish, and multiply, taking all the time that they need to reveal themselves — and then take hold in our hearts, our actions, and our laws.

Top image: Joseph’s coat crafts, from The Lord’s Chips website