Joseph and Decency: Doing the Right Thing

January 13th: Vayechi
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though Joseph toys with his brothers for a while when they come begging for grain—perhaps testing their characters, he ultimately treats them with decency and kindness. Even after their father Jacob dies, Joseph displays a basic morality that shows his development as a person. He begins as an egotistical and spoiled child and grows into a wise and decent man. Note this character-revealing passage in this week’s conclusion to the Joseph saga: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!’ So they sent this message to Joseph. ‘Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, “Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.” Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to them.

 His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Genesis 50.15-21)

Part of Joseph’s thinking is theological and long-range. After his excruciating experiences—kidnapping, slavery, false accusation and imprisonment, he finally reaches prominence, wealth, and purpose, and he sees his fate as a plan of God. He is an instrument of the Divine Will, and this greater purview gives him peace and allows him to extend that peace to his brothers.

But there is also another level of his thinking. Given his maturity and his security, his bruised ego has room for kindness and basic decency. The voice of his conscience can be heard above the din of other feelings.

I believe in the presence and power of conscience—in the basic decency that exists in every human heart. Though it is obscured in some hearts, it is there nonetheless, and we hear fairly often how, in the midst of great inhumanity, goodness somehow makes an appearance.

As Rabbi Chaim Stern puts it, “There is evil enough to break the heart, good enough to exalt the soul.” He also reminds us, “If there is goodness at the heart of life, then its power, like the power of evil, is real.” 

It would be so easy for Joseph to punish or torture his brothers. He has the power. He has the status, and, though Jacob and his other eleven sons are important to us, they are of little account to the great Egyptian Empire. And yet, they are Joseph’s family, and they are human beings, and Joseph’s conscience bids him treat them with fairness, with kindness, and with tolerance.

There is much fear in our country these days—fear that basic decency is in short supply. Many who voted for Hilary Clinton are fearful of what Donald Trump will do. And, yet, in talking to people both before and after the election, one could see that same kind of fear among the Trump supporters about Hilary Clinton’s basic decency. Both groups were frightened about the other side’s lack of conscience—which means that, whichever side lost, the fear and despair was bound to be present for about half of the electorate.

However, there are decent, intelligent people are on both sides of this political divide, and I believe that their/our basic human decency—this common conscience—will prove to be a very important factor as we negotiate the future.

Who can say what Mr. Trump will say or do? He cultivates an image of unpredictability and bravado, but I think that whatever he tries to do will be filtered through the checks and balances of decency and practical patriotism. Remember: he is not the only one in charge, and, though there are some scary people in his camp, there are also millions of loyal Americans who want the best for our country and whose understanding of our national interest is filled with the basic American values of fairness and respect. There are also many decent people in the Congress, the Judiciary, the Military, and the Civil Service who feel very strongly the responsibility to do things right. I do not believe that the equality that has been so long in coming—for women, for African Americans, for LGBT individuals, etc.—will be lost. There may be some reconfiguration of legal lines, and one suspects the debate over how best to achieve equality for all will continue and with vigor, but I do not believe that decency and conscience have left our shores.

As comedian and commentator Jon Stewart recently observed, “The same country—with all its grace, and flaws, and volatility, and insecurity, and strength and resilience—exists today as existed (before the election). The same county that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama.”

In the Torah portion, Joseph understands that he is a vessel of God, and that the presence of God within—his conscience—guides him to do the right thing. Though some may question the notion of American exceptionalism, it has been a central part of our national aspiration for over 240 years. Despite our limitations and missteps, there is a central belief that we are destined to be vessels of God in the world, and I believe that this decency and belief in fairness has been at the heart of all of our progress. I do not believe it has evaporated, and I believe that, even in this much divided country, there is a common commitment to doing the right thing.