Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky

In the cycle of the yearly Torah reading, we are in the midst of the Joseph narrative which tells the amazing story of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph. In last week’s parshah, Joseph was imprisoned on false charges by Potiphar’s wife. 

While incarcerated, he successfully interpreted dreams for Pharaoh’s butler and baker. And this week, after reading of Pharaoh’s two perplexing dreams, we see how the butler recalled how Joseph was a master interpreter of dreams. Pharaoh summoned Joseph from prison to explain why he was dreaming that seven healthy cows were consumed by sickly-looking cows, and that seven healthy stalks of grain were consumed by seven sickly-looking stalks of grain.  

Joseph listened intently to Pharaoh’s account of his dreams and — with the help of God — explained that these dreams foretold seven years of plentiful crops in Egypt followed by seven years of famine. As a result, Pharaoh rewarded Joseph by making him his viceroy of Egypt and overseeing the economic program that would avert economic ruin and starvation.

Years later, when famine struck the region, Joseph’s brothers, who had previously sold him into slavery, came to Egypt to procure much-needed food. In one of the great examples of biblical irony, Joseph recognized his brothers, but they had no idea who he was.

Joseph pretended not to know his brothers, and this is seen by some as his toying with them and his opportunity to test them to see if they had changed their ways. However, there are others who see Joseph’s refusal to reveal himself as reflective of his immense piety.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1810) teaches that it is a sign of Joseph’s righteousness that he did not immediately reveal himself. Joseph realized that it would be humiliating to his brothers if they knew that he had prevailed over them, and that despite their cruel treatment of him, his dreams of power had come true. By making himself a stranger, he made it appear that his brothers were simply bowing to royalty, sparing them the inevitable pain of humiliation.  

He added that this is also the reason Joseph didn’t send word to his father; he wanted to spare his brothers the bitterness of defeat. Therefore, pretending to be a stranger was in fact an act of  kindness.

Joseph’s actions taught us the following important lesson: Instead of just focusing on the actions of others towards us — especially if those actions are less than noble — we should, like Joseph, try to judge people favorably and consider how our actions might impact them.

It would be quite easy to see Joseph’s failure to identify himself to his brother as cruel and manipulative. But when seen through the eyes of Levi Yitzchak, perhaps we would be wiser to consider that we ought not impugn the motives of others. Even when they act harshly, they may be trying to protect us.  

Consider the parent who punishes a child for playing with fire or engaging in a dangerous activity. At first, the child may think that the parent is being mean or overly harsh. But when that child matures, he realizes that the parent’s stern response was meant to protect, not to inflict harm.

We are all living through difficult times. During periods of social distancing and isolation it is easy to be hypersensitive to the actions or words of others. In the age of COVID-19, we can lose our tempers, even with those whom we love the most.   

Recently, someone asked me, “How long have you been married?” I responded jokingly, “Thirty-seven years — 42 including COVID.”

During such times, when our fuses seem shorter than usual, we ought to take Yitzchak’s lesson to heart. It is far too easy to look for reasons, or even pretexts, to suspect the motives of those around us.  

We should instead judge people favorably, because they may well be acting out of love, concern and compassion. JN 

Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is a retired pulpit rabbi and U.S. Navy chaplain and a former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.