Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
The saga of Joseph’s life concludes in this week’s parasha along with the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph has travelled a long road through the past few weeks’ parashiot. He has gone from favoured son to slave, from the degradation of jail to the second highest authority in Egypt, from losing his family to finding them and reconnecting with his beloved father. Life, with all its ups and downs has not been easy for Joseph but the last years with his father were seemingly happy ones. But with the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers become concerned he will now seek revenge for the crimes they committed against him. So they appear before Joseph, fling themselves to the ground and plead for mercy. They lie, telling him that Jacob’s dying wish was that Joseph forgive them and then they offer to be his slaves. In response Joseph says:
“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 susteain you and your children. Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-21)
How remarkable is that? Joseph has had a difficult life, filled with highest of highs and the lowest of lows and it all began with his brother’s decision to sell him. He has been separated from his family and his beloved father, he has suffered years as a slave and then in prison, yet instead of being angry with his brothers he says, essentially, it was all part of God’s plan for me and for us. If that had not happened, I would not have been able to save you and many other peoples’ lives as well.
Many factors lead to us finding ourselves on the path on which we travel and many of them are beyond our control. We don’t have the power to choose what happens to us, how the world around us impacts upon us, the random nature of illness, of struggle, of suffering and the similarly random nature of success, good fortune and blessings. But what we do have in our control is how we react to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And that is where we see Joseph and his life story being so powerful. He did not have control over many of the circumstances in his life but how he approached and resolved what happened to him he did have power over. Joseph could have spent his time being angry with his brothers, plotting his revenge, hating and blaming them for his circumstances. This would have been justified in many respects, they did treat him appallingly and had they not done what they did, Joseph could have been in a very different place, he would certainly have had very different life but instead of dwelling in the negative, Joseph tried to find something which could lead him to let go of his anger towards his brothers and live his life as best he could.
How remarkable is it that we read this parasha on this Shabbat where we remember Nelson Mandela. In so many ways, he is the modern Joseph. Thrown into a pit and jail where he remained for 27 years just for protesting the discrimination based on the colour of a person’s skin. He could have, upon his release, unleashed a barrage of fury at the injustice, been filled with hate and anger. But he did not. Instead he channeled his energies into forging reconciliation, creating a new South Africa. Like Joseph, he was a dreamer, a man who hoped and believed that the world could be different and he worked to make that dream a reality. He said that he and the ANC were not interested in creating a state where the blacks ruled over the whites just as he did not believe in a place where whites ruled over the blacks. He wanted to create a new reality, a new existence and he did so, like Joseph, by letting go of hurt, anger and pain and instead focusing on making his dream of a new South Africa a reality. And it was his example which led, in large part, to the changes which came about. When asked about revenge he said “I have already had nearly thirty years taken from my life, I do not want to lose another minute focused on revenge and hatred. I need now to live.” And that is what he did, like Joseph, he lived and brought people together in truth and reconciliation. Not to pretend the past did not happen but rather to find a way to move forward. It is not easy, it is hard and a battle to stay focused on the road ahead and not look back with regret, not to dwell in the place of the “what if” and instead to say “what now?” I imagine that at times it must have been so hard, but Nelson Mandela’s courage and heroism is that he did not allow the anger and hurt to win, he continued to dream and to create the tomorrow of his dreams and for that he will always be a hero, a hero who fought to not have war and instead to have peace.
So this Shabbat we can learn from Joseph and Nelson Mandela about forging a new tomorrow, dreaming big dreams and making them real.