The early Chassidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, wrote in his book Kedushat Levi that Yosef was a tzaddik, a completely righteous individual. This is not at all uncommon in the books that became part of the Jewish canon. Abraham and all his early descendants, we are told, were tzaddikim, and whatever the plain text of the Written Torah (the Biblical text) may tell us must be understood in that light. Much of Yosef’s behavior does not seem to be morally exemplary, with the notable exception of his refusal to give in to the seductions of Potiphar’s wife. Still, rabbis throughout the centuries have made every effort to present those patriarchs and matriarchs as exemplars of spiritual attainment and morality.

 

The Kedushat Levi  re-interprets Yosef’s vengeful harassment of his brothers in this week’s parashah. When his brothers come to Egypt to procure food during a regional famine, they do not recognize him, but he does recognize them. He accuses them of theft and espionage, and he imprisons them. Kedushat Levi says that he spoke as harshly as he did to his brothers and acted like a tyrant so as to spare their feelings. He prophesied that his brothers would bow down to him. They heard about his dream and hated him for it. If they knew that they were indeed bowing to Yosef in Egypt, their bitterness and anguish would have been too great. Yosef knew that if they simply thought that they were dealing with a potentate who acted like a man of his position, his brothers would have been able to accept their own humbled state before him. 

 

Kedushat Levi turns an episode of vengeance and bitterness into one of selfless care for the person humbled before us. It encourages us not to delight in retribution, and to replace every possible shred of hatred within us with love and concern for those before us. Reb Levi Yitzchak’s Yosef wields power compassionately and gracefully. He is able to overcome not only his vindictiveness and his anger, but also any soft-hearted inability to act sternly for the good of others. This Yosef does what is objectively best for his brothers who lay prostrate before him. 

 

Clearly, there is an impulse among the rabbis to have our Torah text actively teach us lessons to guide our values and our actions, and to inspire spiritual awe. Without any rabbinic texts to act as lenses through which we might see the Biblical story, what is its value to us as Jews? 

 

I am a strong believer in the value, preciousness, and beauty of human life as human life. Yosef, as a human being, deals with deep anger at his brothers. He also carries a knowledge that his life is guided by something beyond himself and that his power over his brothers was already his destiny before being thrown into a pit. He is left broken-hearted at hearing his brothers’ remorse over what they had done to him. He may even carry a lifelong desire to put aside the superior position that he held over his brothers so that he could have their acceptance and kinship. He struggles with some very powerful and overlapping feelings and experiences. To see the complexity of a human being is to begin to see the Divine image in them. 

 

The Chassidic master gives us a Torah of values to aspire to. The Written Torah gives us a human drama from which we can draw wisdom and appreciation. Having a textual tradition that encourages us to study it in a complex and multilayered way is an inspiring metaphor for seeing humans with similar complexity.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

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