Forgiving the Painful Past: A Queer Read of Joseph

(For Congregation Ner Shalom on Parashat Miketz)

I spoke with a reporter this week from the Press-Democrat, doing a story about the Jewish community of Sonoma County. He asked me what I thought characterized our county's Jews. Of course I'm still pretty new to Sonoma, and the Jews I know here are you. And me.

So I told him that our community of Jews is made up of people who have journeyed. We have covered great distances, geographically or personally or spiritually. We have sought new lives, enlightenment, freedom to be ourselves. We often left behind very powerful pasts. Painful pasts. Including Jewish pasts. And now we wonder how to reengage as Jews when those pasts still return to haunt us, and they still hurt.

This problem of facing the painful past is why the Biblical character of Joseph always holds such fascination for me. This week we read the middle act of a three-parashah opera, all about Joseph. And if you don't mind, I'd like to re-familiarize you with the story.

In Act I (last week's parashah - Vayeshev), young Joseph, his father's favorite, dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. He incurs his brothers' ire and on a fateful day is thrown by them into a pit, to be rescued by Midianites and sold into slavery in Egypt. There's an episode with Potiphar's wife that lands Joseph in prison, where he interprets the dreams of other inmates and makes an impression.

In Act II (this week's parashah - Miketz) Pharaoh dreams about skinny cows and fat cows and Joseph is hauled out of jail to interpret the dreams. He takes charge of the stockpiling of Egypt's provisions during seven years of plenty and is the rationer of those stores during the subsequent years of famine. He becomes powerful - Pharaoh's righthand man.

Then his past catches up with him. His brothers arrive from Canaan in search of food. They do not recognize him, and they bow down before him. Joseph does not reveal himself, but plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse. He gives them the food they ask for, but he tests them. He manipulates them into coming back to Egypt and bringing his younger brother Benjamin. The brothers fear this is at last their comeuppance, their karma return for the abduction of Joseph. Joseph understands their language of course and turns away to cry as they discuss this. They ultimately return with Benjamin. Joseph welcomes them and serves them a meal in his home, and is overcome with emotion. But still playing hide and seek, he engineers a way to keep Benjamin captive. This is the test of the brothers' mettle. Will they repeat the act of abandonment that they had perpetrated on Joseph, this time abandoning Benjamin to his fate?

Act III is next week's parashah - Vayigash. The curtain rises and Judah delivers a lengthy polemic to save Benjamin from captivity. But Joseph can no longer contain himself. He reveals his identity. "I am your brother Joseph," he says, "he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you." He has the brothers fetch Jacob his father, and he gives them fertile land to live on in the Egyptian district of Goshen.

(Queer Eye?)

This whole story fascinates me. Joseph's experiences of alienation, journey, and building a new life are so familiar. We all look at Torah through our own lens, of course, and here's mine. This has always struck me as a queer story. Joseph is the queerest character in Torah. I'm not saying that he's the gayest character or that he's gay at all, although he could be. But his narrative is queer. His biography is queer. He is a transgressor. An outsider. He negotiates a mix of identities. He has secrets.

The rabbis sit uncomfortably with who he is. They make special mention in Midrash of his curling his hair and painting his eyes in the Egyptian style. To an Egyptian this would be innocuous, but to the rabbis it certainly had a whiff of gender transgression to it. Maybe gender was the readiest hook upon which to hang their overall anxiety with who Joseph was.

He's also a gifted child. Gifted in ways that make him hated. He is more colorful than the others -- literalized by that coat his father gave him. He is bullied and punished for his difference.

As an adult he survives. He survives by recreating himself; using his gifts but denying his past. He rises to power by interpreting dreams. He is a bearer and sharer of insight. He becomes a polyglot - Midrash says the angel Gabriel taught him to speak the world's 70 languages. Just as queers and other transgressives must learn the secret languages of different social settings, the varied cultural codes by which they will survive or perish.

Joseph survives. He ends up in the big city; the capital of the world -- the San Francisco or New York of its time. He takes on a new identity. A new name. A new role. He creates a life for himself, or allows a new life to unfold for him. And in all those years of being Pharaoh's vizier -- seven years of plenty and the first two years of famine -- he can't find it in himself to send word to his father that he is still alive.

How many of us have made just such decisions? A new place? New life? New name? New social language? How many of us made decisions not to look back? Why didn't Joseph look back? A Boston Globe feature this week on long-term effects of bullying describes how adults, decades later, can fill with terror if they see one of their childhood tormentors. So was Joseph too frightened to risk seeing his brothers? Or even to think about them?

But Joseph, like so many of us, doesn't have this luxury forever. Because the past comes back. The past always comes back. And when it does in the story, Joseph makes some choices.

(Rudolph: Hero or Chump?)

His first choice is to help his brothers. This is what my husband calls the "Rudolph moment." Since this is the season, we'll take as our haftarah the story of Rudolph, another queer character of literature who, as we know, had a very shiny nose. All of the other reindeer used to laugh. And call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games but then: one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, "Rudolph! With your nose so bright, won't you . . . whatever?" This is the pivotal moment for Rudolph. He in fact chooses to save Christmas. But some of us who were also laughed at and kept out of games, might have enjoyed this story equally or more if Rudolph had said, "Excuse me? My entire life you've all taunted me and excluded me and now you're asking for my help? What kind of codependent bull is this? Sorry. It will be Christmas again next year."

But he doesn't. And like Rudolph, Joseph resists his anger. He doesn't say "no." He doesn't say, "screw you; maybe next famine." Why? Maybe because his past is complex - it includes not only the bullies, but his father and his little brother. Or because he has become more complex.

He also doesn't use that first meeting to reveal himself. The rabbis make much of this. They say he held back because the brothers were bowing down to him. The prophecy of his childhood dream had in fact come true. If he'd revealed himself at that moment, it would have been as if announcing that he'd won. It would have instilled rancor in their hearts. This is the quality of Joseph that causes him to be referred to repeatedly in Rabbinic literature as tzadik - Joseph the Righteous, the only character in Genesis to be so named.

From the moment of these first decisions -- to welcome the brothers, help them, and not act with triumph or smugness -- Joseph's conduct might be instructive for the many of us who thought we'd escaped our pasts, only to find them knocking on the door again. Using Joseph the Tzadik as a guide, Torah might offer us this checklist:

(1) Open the door.

Let your past in.

(2) Let your past bow down. Give it a chance to offer you its humility.

(3) Don't gloat. Even though you've made a new and possibly better life.

(4) Sit down and have a meal with your past. Get reacquainted.

(5) Test your past. Give it a chance to turn out differently. Maybe the past isnot unchangeable. Perhaps some of it can redeem itself after all. Let it reenact with a different choice and a better outcome.

(6) Reveal to it who you are now. And remind it what it did to you then.

(7) Release it from its guilt. Forgive it. You and your past cannot stay locked in eternal pain. This is what Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg calls letting go of the "narrative of shame." Like Joseph, we can acknowledge that it is in part because we were broken that we became the much better, much stronger people we are. Our survival was not mere survival, but a flourishing too. We can afford to forgive. And, finally:

(8) Stay where you are. You'd expect a narrative of reconciliation to culminate in a "going home." But Joseph doesn't. He can't. He's become someone else. But he invites his past to come closer. To dwell in fertile land on the outskirts but within reach.

For some of us the painful past that comes knocking is a Jewish past. If that's true for you, and you're here tonight anyway, then it means this. You've already opened the door. You've let that past bow down and offer some humility. You've resisted gloating. You've sat down and had a meal with it. And now, here, at Ner Shalom with our hippie ways and our new songs and our surprising and touching and insightful community, you're testing it to see if it can turn out differently. We're all testing to see if it can turn out differently. I'm guessing for many of us it already has.

In the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, it is Joseph the Tzaddik who is associated with the sefirah called Yesod. This is the locus of fertility. Because Joseph brought his past to a green land even in a time of famine and triggered a burgeoning. By allowing the past to redeem itself and become once again part of his life, Joseph paved the way for the generations to come. He planted the seeds of growth and liberation and revelation.

So may we welcome, test and forgive our pasts, inviting them into our fertile outskirts, planting the seeds for so much blossoming still ahead.

And let us say Amen.