Review by Israel Drazin
Vision and Leadership
Reflections on Joseph and Moses
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, 2013, 239 pages
This is the latest of the so-far eleven posthumous writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) based on writings he did not publish. This one contains a dozen essays on the biblical Joseph and Moses that were taken from various writings and notes by the rabbi, which were edited and assembled in this book.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s interpretations of the biblical events surrounding Joseph and Moses were derived from his understanding of how to read the Torah. He follows the view of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva and not that of his colleague Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiva felt that since the Torah is divine, no word or letter is superfluous. Each has meaning, and people must mine the Torah text to find this meaning even though the meaning is not explicit in the words or letters. Rabbi Ishmael felt that the Torah is intended for humans and was composed in language that people could understand. Thus, just as people repeat themselves for emphasis or to enhance the poetry of what is said, so too does the Torah, which “speaks in human language.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik also, like Nachmanides, but unlike Maimonides, took the homiletical messages in Midrashim literally and seemed to accept as true the mystical notions in the thirteenth century Zohar, including its teachings about the sephirot, because he frequently quotes this book. He also believed that God is present in this world and causes people to act in ways he wants them to act. Thus, the essays about Joseph and Moses do not attempt to reveal the plain meaning of the biblical tales, but are homiletics, sermons that express his view of Judaism.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, for example, states that the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers was “not jealousy” but “a lack of appreciation (of) the sense of unity that members of a family feel for each other.” The brothers “were taken aback (by Joseph’s dreams, because Joseph) placed himself and them within a different society, not a pastoral but an agricultural one.” Joseph had concerns that did not bother his brothers. He feared “the complete disintegration of the covenantal community founded by Abraham.” Joseph also had a vision of “exile in Egypt…. They would have to live in a cruel land run by a dictatorial Pharaoh.” He had “a feeling of doom.” It was God who “arranged for Joseph to be introduced to Pharaoh…. Joseph’s stay in Egypt was predestined and planned to the minute by the Almighty.” Unstated in the Torah, Joseph explained to Pharaoh that “man’s conquest of nature brings him not only blessings but distress as well.” Joseph did much for Egypt. Among other contributions, he introduced “a rationing system” in Egypt. Later, when Joseph and his brother Judah discussed the future of their brother Benjamin, whether Joseph should enslave him for stealing his cup: “Intuitively, they (the brothers) felt that the controversy did not revolve about their brother Benjamin, but about Jewish historical destiny, that is, about whose descendants would be the King Messiah – Joseph’s or Judah’s.” Jacob came to Egypt to reunite with his son Joseph and lived in Egypt until he died for seventeen years, the same amount of time that Joseph lived with him until his brothers sold him into slavery. Jacob had to be in Egypt for this time to imbue Joseph “with the morality and piety of Abraham.”
Joseph asked Jacob’s descendants to take his body to Canaan when they left Egypt. Moses “carried Joseph’s coffin on his shoulders for forty years.” Moses forgot his past, including his religion, during the many decades that he lived with his wife in Midian “because he wanted to forget.” We must never give up hope about non-observant Jews; there is a chance the person will return to Judaism. The vision of the burning bush that Moses saw shows that Jews are indestructible. “Pharaoh’s tolerance (of Moses) is one of the greatest miracles in the story of the Exodus!” The people of Amalek attacked the Israelites when they left Egypt, but “it was not a war against the ex-slaves; it was, rather, a war with the God of Israel.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik also states that the first human Adam had many children during the 130 years between the birth of Cain and Abel and the birth of Seth. These children “did not bear the ‘image of God,’” only the descendants of Seth, “in other words, not all humanity was necessarily created in the image of God.” This image is “a challenge to which man is supposed to respond, a destination toward which one may journey, an ideal to be realized.” Those who fail to live up to this ideal, who reject the burden, who decline the responsibility, are like Adam’s descendants before Seth was born, “aboriginal” people “of chaos and darkness.”
“Judaism,” Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, as Maimonides before him, “insists that man develop his potentialities to the fullest. The Torah encourages man to think, to work, to learn, to improve and perfect himself and his environment, and to intervene whenever necessary in natural processes, if such interference will contribute to the self-realization of man. God purposely did not complete the world.” God left “man an opportunity to join Him in His creative gesture and become a co-participant in the mysterious act of continuous creation.”