The Joseph story, chapters 37 through 50 of Genesis, is one of the great short stories of human literature. Parashat Miketz is the physical center of that tale. It is also the narrative in which we see this son of Israel transform himself into a responsible Jew.
This week’s narrative begins with Joseph’s personal redemption from an Egyptian prison and his rapid rise to power at the Egyptian court. The second half of the parasha recounts Joseph’s reconnection with the brothers who sold him into slavery. Here is where the story becomes not only interesting, but to me, extremely relevant to contemporary Jewish life.
The Torah tells us explicitly that Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not know him. Joseph, being a very human Jew, was caught in a real dilemma. He wasn’t yet willing to reveal his identity and welcome with open arms these brothers who had betrayed him, but neither was he able to turn them away in their time of famine. Joseph answers to the exchange between God and Cain when Cain responds to God’s inquiry as to the whereabouts of his brother Abel with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Here in action rather than words Joseph answers Cain’s retort to God in the affirmative: Yes, he is his brothers’ keeper! Yes, even though he doesn’t always like their actions and his children will form a separate tribe from that of his brothers’ descendants, Joseph and all the children of Israel from his generation onward will be tied to each other by both a common heritage and a common fate.
Joseph is the prototype for the court Jew of medieval history and, I suggest, for both the American Jewish community as a whole and for a pantheon of American Jews who, like the biblical Joseph, had access to powerful leaders, from Haym Solomon, who helped finance the Continental Army, to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump who will be key advisers to President-elect Trump.
There have been many instances over the 240 year history of the United States when our American court Jews have had the opportunity to intercede on behalf the needs of the Jewish people. Some have interceded successfully; others have done so with passion, but failed; while still others have sought to turn a deaf ear to the plight of their fellow Jews. All the while, similar to the biblical Joseph, American Jews who have had the ear of a president, either as formal members of the administration or as informal advisers, have not compromised their duty to the president while pleading the cause of the Jewish community.
Examples abound. They include: In 1863, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise was successful in petitioning President Abraham Lincoln to overturn an order of expelling Jews from occupied territory in the Confederacy that had been issued by General Grant. In 1917 Justice Louis Brandeis successfully persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to encourage the British to issue the Balfour Declaration, giving international legal legitimacy to the creation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Juxtaposed to these successes is Rabbi Stephen Wise’s passionate pleas to President Franklin Roosevelt during the Holocaust. As history now reveals, the pleas of Rabbi Wise were met with presidential words of concern that were empty of action, until the plight of European Jewry was sealed.
Examples of American Jews who refused to use their personal influence on behalf of Jewish brethren are by their very nature less well known and difficult to document. Without naming names out of respect for their descendants, there were a number politically influential American Jews in the 1920s, who out of fear of the rising level of American anti-Semitism, were generally silent as the immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 closed the doors on millions of Eastern Europeans, including Jews, who were seeking refuge from economic and political turmoil in Europe.
I did not vote for Donald Trump in large part because of his positions on immigration, government sponsorship of health and human services, and his stated views on America’s role on the international stage. Now that he will in a few weeks become our 45th president, it is the right and responsibility of every American to “trust and verify” the words and actions of the Trump administration. As Americans we have the right to both lobby for issues of concern and protest against actions with which we disagree. We also have the responsibility to accept the results of the election and to give Mr. Trump the respect due him as our President.
The ancient tribal divisions of Israel were named for 11 of Jacob’s sons and two of his grandsons, the descendants of Joseph. As any reader of the Bible knows, these tribes did not always get along. They were challenged by both legitimate differences and, as the rabbis of the Talmud note, baseless hatred.
In the contemporary world, Israeli and American Jews are also divided into tribe-like groups, by both differences over religious theology and practice and political preferences, such as Democratic and Republican or Labor and Likud. Tragically, in addition to these legitimate differences of opinion and ideology, we are also susceptible to the baseless hatred that our talmudic rabbis claim was the cause of the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
As the new Trump administration takes control next month I am certain that there will be many issues over which I will differ with my fellow Jews as well as my fellow Americans of every religion race and ethnicity. My hope and prayer at this time of Chanukah is that we may all rededicate ourselves to Joseph’s understanding of the answer to the question of Cain and remember that even though we may not agree with or even like every other within our community or in our world, we all are responsible for each other.