The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “What’s Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from Mikeitz, Genesis chapters 41:1-44:17.
Was Joseph really righteous?
Jewish tradition calls Joseph Yosef Hatzadik, “Righteous Joseph.” Is this true? Is this an attempt to say that despite what seems to be unrighteous acts, Joseph was really acting properly? Let’s look at just three events.
Once Joseph was elevated to the status of second to the king, he surely had the power and ability to contact his father, whom he must have known was still grieving for him.
Why didn’t he contact his father? Isn’t this improper behavior? Is it possible that he blamed his father for what his brothers did to him—that he felt his father was part of the plot to get him out of the house because he was causing discord? After all, his sale into slavery began when his father sent him to his brothers, when his father knew they hated him. Is it also possible that Joseph didn’t realize his father’s love for him until his brothers told him about Jacob’s feelings some twenty years later? Thus despite appearances, do we think that Joseph behaved properly?
* * *
Joseph does not immediately open the granaries when the hungry Egyptian people cry out for food. He does so only when the famine intensified. Why did he wait? Why did he allow the Egyptians unnecessary pain? Those who govern the lives of others have an enormous responsibility. Did Joseph fail in this respect? Did he do this only to make the Egyptians more subservient? Is this righteous?
* * *
Joseph treated the Egyptian priests in an extraordinarily generous manner when he didn’t tax them. Could this be the origin of the American practice of absolving churches and synagogues from taxes? Is this proper? Isn’t this a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that mandates the separation of Church and State? Did Joseph set a bad precedent?