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It has been said that blood is thicker than water. This proverbial wisdom would suggest that family ties, though frequently tried, are stronger than any other relational bonds. After all, no judge would allow the sibling of a defendant to sit on the jury empowered to impartially try him or her. And which of us would not suspect a miscarriage of justice if such a situation were to be allowed? Even if the verdict were to go against the defendant, it might suggest severe animosity between the siblings. For, as many of us have observed, when the strong knots of family ties are broken, they are often the most difficult to repair.
Such is the prologue to the intense and profound theatre of today’s parsha. Joseph, who is Israel’s favorite son, sits in judgment of his brothers. These same brothers had many years earlier sold Joseph into slavery, as a jealous response to their father’s privileged treatment of him. Though suffering many years of hardship, providence elevated Joseph to a position of authority, vizier over all of Egypt and second only to Pharaoh. His position is a reward for his God given wisdom, insight and vision that saved Egypt and in effect the surrounding nations from the deadly results of a great famine. After correctly interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph had urged the ruler to prepare for seven years of famine during seven prior years of prosperity. How could he have known that his own brother’s would seek audience before his throne in an effort to purchase food to sustain the lives of themselves, of their father Jacob and their youngest brother Benjamin? And how could they have known that the great man who controlled their very lives was their brother who they had betrayed a lifetime ago?
At first blush it seems somewhat odd that they would not recognize Joseph. But it was a boy, after all, which the sons of Israel had sold to a passing caravan, not a fully matured man. Before them stood a middle-aged cosmopolitan Egyptian not a young nomadic Hebrew. His clothes would have been the soft raiment of pampered wealth not the course garb of a shepherd. His soft bathed skin and shaved face would never have betrayed his true pedigree, that of a Hebrew shepherd. And the context in which Joseph is reunited with his brothers is one that none of them could ever have imagined, if they even dared bring him to the front of their suppressed memories, if they could even posit that he were still alive.
Yet Joseph remains their brother. The filial bonds are not dependent upon their recognition or acknowledgement of him. Joseph like them is a son of Israel, and has been chosen by God to be their deliverer not their judge. It is not surprising that they fear him more when he reveals himself to them as their forgotten brother, then when he is disguised as a foreign ruler. And this suspicion will not pass easily. Years later upon the death of Jacob they will still fear his vengeance, and appeal to him for continued mercy. Yet he assures and consoles them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
In a strange economy of mutual blessing, Joseph the deliver of Israel is hidden among the gentiles and becomes the provider of their salvation as well. But some 400 years later when the new Pharaoh forgets Joseph and oppresses the children of Israel, the Holy One, the God of Israel will break the back of Egypt. Egypt as the prototypical nation learns that you cannot receive blessing from the God of Israel, if you do not honor the children of Israel.
Another strange and somewhat ambivalent relationship exists between Joseph and Judah. It was Judah years before who had devised the plan to fake Joseph’s death and sell him into slavery. He did so to prevent his brother’s from killing Joseph. And it is also Judah who becomes the protector of Benjamin, offering himself in slavery so the youngest of Jacob’s sons might be spared from the wrath of the vizier prior to Joseph revealing himself. Judah is truly a prince among his brothers; the one whose descendants Jacob prophetically announces will continue to carry the scepter of Israel. Judah is the ancestor of Jesse, the father of David who was the quintessential King of Israel, the forbearer of the Prince Messiah. Judah is the ruler among his brothers. Joseph on the other hand is a ruler among the gentiles, a suffering servant for the sake of his brothers. Joseph is to Judah as the dark side of the moon is to its bright face.
It is no wonder then that when the sages wished to reconcile the disparate pictures of the Messiah in scripture, the lowly servant who would arrive on the foal of a donkey, and the victorious king who would come upon the clouds they looked to the strange interrelationship between Judah and Joseph. The rabbis of old determined that if Israel were meritorious we would receive the victorious Messiah, Moshiach ben David (Son of David). But if we were not we would receive the suffering Messiah, Moshiach ben Yosef (son of Joseph) – two messiahs coming once each – one to suffer one to reign. Never could they have imagined one Messiah who would embody both, Yeshua, Israel’s greatest son both suffering servant and conquering King.
When Yeshua was resurrected he still bore the wounds of crucifixion. Before he ascended to the right hand of God’s throne his disciples asked him, “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel.” Yeshua affirmed that the restoration of Israel’s glory was a divine appointment – but one that would have to wait. Instead he commissioned them to go among the nations as his body, the quintessential sons of Israel to suffer as he did and to announce the great deliverance that is to come.
This is quite consistent with the messianic faith of Israel as described by Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod in his seminal work Body of Faith,
“The hope of Israel is in the deliverance of its Messiah, the hope that prevents the past from gaining complete hegemony over the present. Because there waits in the future a transformation of the human condition such as has never been known before. The saving acts of God will be unexpected, revising much of the previously held wisdom, bringing into being a new heaven and a new earth in which not only the body of Israel will be circumcised but also its heart. The circumcised body of Israel is the dark, carnal presence through which redemption makes its way in history. Salvation is of the Jews because the flesh of Israel is the abode of the divine presence in the world. It is the carnal anchor that God has sunk into the soil of creation.”
Throughout history the pain of the Jews, like the suffering of Joseph and the martyrdom of Yeshua has paradoxically been affecting the redemption and reconciliation of humanity. Sholem Asche the famous Yiddish playwright and Holocaust survivor paints a compelling comparison in his controversial monogram One Destiny: An Epistle to the Gentiles,
“Hemmed in by a ring of death with bayonets and rifles on the streets of the ghetto, huddled in burning synagogues along the crusaders paths, and on the way to the inquisitors stakes, Jewish martyrs prayed, sang and cried out to God. The same outcry that was heard on the cross from he who gave his life to save the world, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” – “ My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
We Messianic Jews are a remnant of Israel, part and parcel with the historical suffering, and messengers for the world. We may at times be made to feel outside the family, not always recognized by others within the family of Israel, but we are part of the family nonetheless. We are brothers of Messiah, redeemed by His sacrificial acts; therefore we must bear the marks of His suffering. So we become servants for the sake of our brothers, as Joseph did, as Yeshua did. We must neither condemn them, blame them nor separate ourselves from them.
The great Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber wrote,
“ From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Savior has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which, for his sake and my own, I must endeavor to understand… My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer, I am more than ever certain that a great place belongs to him in Israel’s history of faith and that this place cannot be described by any of the usual categories.”
Sometimes it can feel very difficult to live out such a thankless and misunderstood identity. To the Nations we are Jews and worthy of the misunderstanding and scorn that they often inappropriately feel for Jews. To our brother’s we are often unrecognizable as family. We don’t do it because its easy, and certainly not for the lavish rewards. Rather we do it because we are compelled to do so. We can take heart in the words of Rav Sha’ul, “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (Acts 28:20)
To our brother’s though we can echo Joseph’s words of assurance, a precursor of Yeshua’s promise “God sent me ahead of you to preserve you for a remnant on the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Genesis 45:5) As servants of a blessing, we stand in the place of the King – sons of Israel, brothers’ of Moshiach, children of the covenant, an aristocracy of humility.