Meet Joseph. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, to whom he gave the famous coat of many colors. Though we meet him at seventeen as our Torah portion opens, Joseph is described as a lad, a youth. Why? Rashi (11th
century French Rabbi) tells us: “He would do things associated with youth; he would fix his hair, he would groom his eyes, so that he should look attractive.” In other words Joseph was an extremely self-centered teenager who had yet to grow beyond the narcissistic stage of his evolution. Joseph sought to outshine his eleven siblings not only by creating this peacockish self-image, but also by putting them down in front of his father every opportunity he had. Early in the portion we read that “Joseph would bring malicious reports about them to his father
.” (Gen. 37:2) Even the way he shares his prophetic dreams—seeing his brothers, father and mother bowing down to him—betrays his desire to feel superior, his need to humiliate others in order to elevate himself. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Joseph was that his brothers sold him into slavery.
Many years later, when Joseph shows up—a changed man—in Pharaoh’s court, he is thirty years old. In the thirteen years between the time his brothers sell him into slavery and the day Pharaoh makes him his second-in-command over Egypt, Joseph’s journey is one of personal transformation from “eved” (Gen. 39:17) to “shaliach” (Gen. 45:5-8) The word “eved” refers to the Hebrew for “slave.” As such, Joseph is forced to learn to serve others; and in doing so for over two decades, his ego dissolves. “Shaliach” refers to the Hebrew for “emissary,” which, in this case, is about placing oneself in the service of the Divine, making oneself an instrument or a channel through which the One manifests. Twice in this episode of his story we read that “God was with Joseph.” In Midrash Rabbi Huna explains why the text had to specify that “God was with Joseph,” since we would expect that to be the case in the first place. He says that “He [Joseph] whispered [God’s name] whenever he came in and whenever he came out.” Of course God was with him, God had always been with him; but it was now Joseph—having surrendered his ego—who was with God. Now, no longer exclusively preoccupied with interpreting his own self-aggrandizing prophetic dreams, Joseph is able to recognize others’ prophetic dreams, and use his gift to serve as their interpreter. In the awakening of this realization, he is no longer a slave; he becomes a Divine emissary.
These two aspects of Joseph’s transformation—learning to serve others, and making oneself a humble channel for the Divine energies of Love, Compassion and Peace—are the two main components of the Jewish spiritual path. On one hand, as individuals and as a community, we are to serve and support each other, to lend our energies to healing the ills of our society and our world, to pursue justice and work toward creating a communal life that embodies the highest values our tradition upholds. On the other hand we are to ceaselessly engage in inner personal work in order to become more loving, more compassionate, more inclusive and more peaceful beings; to recognize God’s Presence in every place and every one, and to know the One we are.