Parashat Vayigash 5774 (on developing a narrative for one’s life)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

How would you reintroduce yourself to someone who you had completely lost touch with, who hasn’t seen you in years, hasn’t heard about what you’ve been up to from your connections and hasn’t even been following your exploits on Facebook?

How would you frame your new life and the story of how you got from the person you were then to the one you are today? What are your values and priorities now? Would you confront the awkward fact of your lack of contact for all these years, and if so, how would you make sense of it?

When Joseph is about to reveal his identity to his brothers, he sends away his Egyptian aides so that they would not be with him

בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.

when he made himself known to his brothers. (Gen 45:1)

This form of the verb “to know” – hitvadah – is only used in one other place in Tenakh: when God explains how prophets experience God’s communication. (Num 12:6) This word is indicating more than just a simple expression of identity, this is to be a revelation of important truths. He doesn’t only say “I am your brother Joseph”, and leave them to draw their own conclusions, he explains what the purpose of his life is, and always was: God sent him to Egypt and made him into a powerful figure there:

לָשׂוּם לָכֶם שְׁאֵרִית בָּאָרֶץ

to ensure [their] survival on earth. (Gen 45:7)

Joseph expands on this guiding narrative, emphasising two points: his current high position – first lieutenant to perhaps the most powerful man the world had ever known, and therefore having the wherewithal to achieve this goal, and a key step on Joseph’s journey: when he was sold into slavery by his brothers, the last time that they recognized him. Joseph does not describe this pivotal moment as a terrible injustice, but as ordained by God in service of God’s plan for the nation of Israel.

Joseph was not upset about having been sold into slavery, because ultimately it served his life’s mission. To Joseph, his brothers’ intentions are irrelevant. What is important is that events unfolded guided by the hand of God’s Presence.

Whatever else has happened to Joseph, his brothers must realise that he has, in Aviva Zornberg’s words“discovered a vocabulary to describe his life”. (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, p.335) I suspect that few of us could speak with such conviction about our life’s purpose, that the intentions of our closest friends and family pale into insignificance.

One of the most foundational controversies of philosophy is whether or not universals — like heaviness or redness — actually exist. The twentieth Century American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine argued that either position is acceptable, as an internally consistent and arguably simple framework can be supported by each one. Language, mathematics and physics can all be fully examined and explained whichever choice you make. Like any theory, he writes,

…we adopt, in so far as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of of raw experience can be fitted and arranged. (“On What There Is”, From a Logical Point of View, p.16)

Philosophers and scientists are challenged to make this choice of how to arrange the facts in such a way as to make sense of them. So too, whenever we introduce ourselves to someone new, or even more so when we are reintroduced to someone who knew us in a different place in our lives, we are in effect asked: how will you explain your life? What are the key milestones in the path you are on, and what might the destination be?

In my recent experience, as I am no longer working in any kind of rabbinic role or even for a Jewish or non-profit organization, I asked my in-laws not to introduce me as being a rabbi. My excuse to them is that this part of me is not related to what I do for a living now, and so needlessly complicates things. My excuse to myself is that I don’t want to share my story, my narrative, with people that I’ve just met. Somewhere in the back of my mind, though, I also am unsettled by the awareness that I don’t have a full grasp of the plot of my professional life. As happy as I am in my current position, I hadn’t the faintest notion a year ago that I’d be here, and don’t have much idea of what my next point of reference will be.

Reading Joseph’s account of why he got to where he was and what he was about to do next can inspire admiration or jealousy at his conviction, but such a degree of confidence can also be off putting. This is a man who, as a boy, told his older brothers that they would one day bow down to him. So it may come as no surprise that he seems more self-assured than is considered good manners when his prediction comes true. Joseph reveals himself much as God does to a prophet, and explains to his brothers how their actions were, in reality, just a necessary part of his mission. But surely only God (if even!) knows what role each of us is to play? There is an arrogance to claiming to be certain that we know the true meaning of our actions and the actions of others.

Rather, maybe the truth, as Macbeth claimed, is that a person’s life is merely:

…a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. (Macbeth V, 5)

Macbeth might go too far in claiming that we are just actors following an unknown script that is ultimately “signifying nothing” (in the language of Tenakh – “all is vanity” –Ecclesiastes 1:1), but Joseph’s conviction that he is the lead in a play that he knows comprehensively, and that the others around him are just in supporting roles, does not leave room for others to interpret their own lives, or to actively influence his life.

Instead of thespians with a fixed script, perhaps the better analogy for our lives is improv. We may not be able to give a clear plot summary at any point. We can be inspired — or sabotaged — along the way by the actions of others. The best we can do is to creatively adjust our direction as we go along, and struggle together with our fellow actors to find moments of shared purpose.

Philosophers and scientists don’t make their theoretical choices in total isolation. Rather, they seek scholarly communities of colleagues who will share and help develop their understanding of reality. Improv too, depends on the interplay of partners. May we help each other to find flashes of collaborative narrative to explain the meaning of our lives, and hopefully engage in some merriment too.