Parashat Mikketz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
He turned away from them and wept. Genesis 42:24a
Religious violence: As 2015 draws to a close, it is the background noise of our times, noise that all too often breaks out of the background to command our attention and horror. Last week, the horror drew particularly close to our community when Nicholas Thalasinos, a member of Shiloh Messianic Congregation in Southern California, was among those killed in an Islamist terror attack in San Bernardino.
One increasingly common response to religious violence is to oppose religion altogether. After the San Bernardino attack, media bristled with posts—including a New York Daily News headline, “God isn’t Fixing This”—mocking those who called for prayer instead of “doing something” about the attack. Some go even beyond this. Not only is prayer ineffective, they would say, but religion itself is the cause of violence.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues the opposite in his recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.
His opening line is, “When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.” Not only is violence not caused by religion, it is a desecration of religion. But Rabbi Sacks doesn’t deny the linkage between religion and violence, particularly against the background horror of ISIS.
One specific link that Sacks points out is the scapegoat. Humans in their primal state live in groups and develop customs to preserve the group, both from other groups and from fragmentation. The violence that groups might direct at each other, or that might tear the group apart from within, is redirected to a scapegoat, a victim that is close enough to be identified with the group, but different enough to be “other”. Sacks cites scholars who see scapegoating—violence redirected toward the designated other—as the root of religion, and human sacrifice as the primal religious practice. In this view, religion doesn’t cause violence, but violence gave birth to religion. (Of course, the root of Torah, unlike man-made religions, is divine revelation. Torah channels the scapegoat idea into a system of sacrifice that restores the relationship between humans and their Creator, beginning with Israel, and anticipates the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua.) The scapegoat bears violence so that violence doesn’t destroy the community, and rituals develop to explain and protect the practice of scapegoating.
Joseph is a scapegoat. The family of Jacob his father has been fractured. The family was formed in exile in Paddan-aram, with Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, in open competition with each other. No sooner does Jacob return with his family to the promised homeland than his daughter Dinah is violated by a local nobleman. His two sons Simeon and Levi take vengeance in an outrageous act of violence that threatens the peace of the whole family. Soon afterwards, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel dies giving birth to his youngest son, Benjamin. And right after that, his oldest son, Reuben, “went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out” (Gen. 35:22).
Jacob’s family is traumatized and Jacob’s response is to focus his attention and hope upon Joseph, the elder son of his beloved Rachel, as the chosen one. The brothers likewise focus their attention on Joseph, but as the scapegoat. In an act of religious violence they displace the family wounds—the rivalries, disappointments, and resentments—on to Joseph, cast him into a pit, and sell him off to slavery in Egypt.
Readers are familiar with Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50, so let’s consider just one game-changing moment in this week’s parasha. God has seen to it that Joseph gets promoted from scapegoat to second-in-command to Pharaoh, in charge of the imperial food supply. Eventually Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food and appear before Joseph. They don’t recognize him, because he’s twenty years older than when they last saw him and is dressed like an Egyptian, but he recognizes them (Gen. 42:8). The Midrash comments: “AND JOSEPH KNEW HIS BROTHERS—when they fell into his hand: BUT THEY KNEW HIM NOT—when he fell into their hands” (Gen. Rabbah 91:7).
Joseph’s brothers “knew him not,” back when he fell into their hands and they sold him into bondage. They ignored his fear and his cries for mercy. Now, when they fall into Joseph’s hand, he accuses them of being spies and threatens punishment. The brothers start to get it: “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Gen. 42:21). When Joseph hears these words from his brothers, he turns away from them and weeps (Gen. 42:24a). He knows his brothers through their remorse.
The story isn’t over yet, but this is a turning point. Joseph could easily have chosen revenge or utter rejection of his brothers. He could have turned on his family members, or abandoned them altogether. Both responses would have arisen out of his role as scapegoat, and kept him locked in it. Instead, Joseph chooses a better way. He becomes his own man, no longer defined by his place in the family, but still engaged with his family. Therefore, as Rabbi Sacks notes, “The scene is now set for the second act of the drama,” in which Joseph will construct “a controlled experiment in ‘perfect repentance’” for his brothers, repentance that is essential if there is to be genuine restoration.
When Joseph takes a break to weep, he comes back, not as Joseph the scapegoat, but as Joseph set free to again become the son and brother.
We don’t need to look any farther than San Bernardino to see that violent religion still demands a scapegoat. But Joseph forsakes the victimhood of the scapegoat to “know his brothers.” He forsakes revenge to prepare for reconciliation. Joseph provides a religious response to religious violence, a response of hope, which we can’t allow today’s violence to destroy.
Here’s my review of Not in God’s Name.