A story from the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev:
In a Jewish village of Eastern Europe lived a notorious thief. All the Jews of the village were very poor and the thief was even poorer. In order to feed his family and put a roof over their head, our thief was known to take a purse left on a store counter, a pair of boots set aside while the owner took a nap, or other alluring items that passed his eyes. Of course, every Friday, the thief stole two challahs and a flask of wine so that he could enjoy a Sabbath feast.
The thief was both reviled and accepted as a member of the community (what’s new!). As occupations go, it was not all that much more dishonest than the machinations of the town butcher, for example, who was known to have accurate scales —within a pound or two.
The thief pursued his trade according to a strict code of ethics. He never stole from the poorest. He never stole anything that was essential to its owner’s life or livelihood.
When the thief’s days had ended, his soul ascended to Heaven to stand before Judgment. Heaven rejected him not because of his sins on earth, but rather because the residents of Heaven did not look forward to finding their possessions pinched.
The thief was subsequently sent to Hell, and hailed as a celebrity. The Master of Hell himself greeted the thief in his office. The Master regaled the thief with his grand opus, a giant folio book, in which he had for generations been building a case against the People of Israel by recording every sin of every Jew – including, unkosher food, broken promises, Sabbath desecrations, spoken curses, and pilfered charity monies. His case was airtight. He could now justifiably destroy the Jewish people. With the Jews gone, Hell would have no opposition on earth, then no one to thwart the master’s plan to dominate humanity and fill the earth with evil.
A messenger entered the office and for a moment the Master was distracted. The thief suddenly realized that it was for this very moment that he had been created and knew what he had to do. With hands trained over a lifetime of thievery, he deftly lifted the great book from under the elbow of the Master, carried it to an open window and silently cast the giant book down deep into the raging fires of Hell.
When the Master turned back and saw what had happened, he raged: No! For generations I have toiled to bring Israel to destruction, and now you would rob me of my victory? Before the Master could wreak revenge upon our holy thief, messengers from Heaven appeared and carried him there to find repose for eternity, away from the clutches of the Master of Darkness.
A tale from the 18th century, a tale for today. Of course, the tale introduces an endless array of interpretations and lessons. For our purposes and to link it to our weekly Torah reading, I repeat one sentence: The thief suddenly realized that it was for this very moment that he had been created and knew what he had to do.
Where have we heard echoes of this sentiment before? For one, you may remember that in the story of Esther, read on the holiday of Purim, I refer to Chapter 4, verse 14 as her uncle Mordecai bemoans the imminent destruction of the Jews according to the evil Haman’s plan and Queen Esther’s potential in being the Jewish savior. Mordecai pleads to Esther: “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” Esther and the holy thief find themselves in a position to make the right decision, or, alternatively, to acquiesce to a purpose greater than oneself, one of Jewish survival.
In our Torah reading this week, Vayigash, we have come to the climax of the Joseph saga. Having agitated his brothers as an arrogant teen, Joseph was thrown into a pit, sold to a caravan traveling to Egypt, resold to Pharoah’s minister Potiphar, falsely implicated for sexual improprieties by Potiphar’s wife, thrown into jail, befriended by fellow incarcerated, correctly interpreted their dreams, ultimately exonerated, and raised up to second in command to Pharoah. At the moment of this week’s Torah reading, at a time of great famine, he confronts his brothers who have come to Egypt for food. At what appears as revenge, Joseph demands that his brothers leave the youngest and his only biological sibling, Benjamin, in Egypt. Not knowing that Joseph is his long-lost brother, Judah at that moment of high drama pleads to Joseph to take him in place of Benjamin knowing that their father Jacob would be devastated to lose the only surviving son of his beloved Rachel, and that is where I will begin to read the text.
In an unexpected twist to the expected resentment from Joseph, he reveals himself to his brothers, sobs uncontrollably, and assures them that they should not be too distressed or laden with guilt, because “it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you,” and again in a later verse, “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” Joseph has become the holy thief. He declares himself an instrument of God, and, also recognizes his human purpose for a cause greater than himself or even his nuclear family. Rabbi Meni Even Israel, son of the great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of blessed memory, teaches that Chava, Eve, the first woman of creation, received from God, and passed down to humanity the essence of Judaism – the ability of every human being to choose between good and evil, framed in a moral compass. The thief, Esther, and Joseph ultimately exercised this moral choice. Rabbi Israel related a story from this past week about an Israel grad student in literature, not a warrior, who had immediately joined the war effort, actually the southern battle front, as a reservist after October 7. Home on leave, he met with Rabbi Israel with an ethical dilemma. He had confronted three Hamas members in an operative who came out of a building shirtless (ostensibly to show they were not strapped with explosives), with a white flag, as if to surrender. The academic soldier said that in that moment, he just wanted to shoot them dead to wipe out Hamas and assuage his anger. He did not. Rabbi Israel reminded his student that he cannot lose his heart, his compassion for humanity, his moral compass. Indeed, Rabbi Israel’s advice to every Jew at this moment is the same.
In an example closer to home, you may have heard of an incident on December 7 of a Jewish middle school teacher in Texas who put an Israeli flag in his public school classroom in honor of his Israeli family. When told by a student that it was offensive to her, he was overheard by other faculty and students yelling that he would murder that tween in the parking lot and behead her. None of us can fathom this horrific response, but who of us knows what pain the teacher carries. That said, Rabbi Israel reminds us again that we are to curb any of our emotions and intentions that take us away from our humanity, our moral compass and compassion, under any circumstances.
Returning to Joseph, in further irony, and as prequel to this week’s Torah reading, Joseph plotted to keep Benjamin, the youngest and his only full biological sibling, and enslave him. When all the brothers had left Egypt with their provisions, Joseph framed Benjamin by having Joseph’s princely chalice planted in Benjamin’s backpack, sent to incriminate the brothers on their way home. Benjamin was coined a thief, but, in truth, Joseph was the thief, having stolen Benjamin’s innocence, singling out young Benjamin in a false accusation, with no protection, or resistance, or defense from his brothers. What was Joseph thinking? We have evidence of the act in the text but not a word of Joseph’s motivation even as we readers of the narrative tend towards a common conclusion – that Joseph was playing vengeful games with his siblings, paying back in kind his own experience as the one who had caused familial jealousy and rage once upon a time and then was cast down into a pit of loneliness, fear, and despair. We might veer into a conversation about whether punishments fit their crimes, but that’s for another day.
Joseph’s declaration of his identity to his brothers and his true purpose may, on the surface, seem unexpected directly following the fabricated plot. Yet, the seemingly vengeful act to make Benjamin a hostage slave dissolved into forgiveness for Joseph immediately after Judah’s impassioned plea. Judah’s courage to stand up to a hostile and unjust ruler is also a sermon for another time – you can see a common theme here – multiple, I mean “endless” lessons for us in how to be a mensch.
Joseph could feed the people in a time of famine; Joseph could forgive his brothers and reconcile his family; Joseph could find a safe-haven for the Jewish community, as a person of means and status in the non-Jewish world, Joseph could speak for all who could not or would not. Joseph in his maturity and greater awareness did the right thing. Joseph’s revelation of his true identity enabled Jacob and his descendants to settle in Goshen, Egypt and thus the survival of the Jews, which is ironically the ongoing challenge until this very day. Survival remained the issue in Egypt, in the wilderness, in Canaan, in the Diaspora, and in the modern Land and State of Israel. Our history metaphorically parallels that of Joseph, the people of Israel periodically falling into the abyss, and later experiencing extraordinary deliverance. Even amidst our trauma, let us hold on to this inverted historical wave and affirm our integrity, our conscience, our sense of purpose for Israel and for all humanity, and our right to voice all of it, as we remember both the miraculous and human powers attributed to Joseph, the dreamer and the redeemer.