Light from the Sidra


Torah:Genesis.41:1-44:17.Haftarah:Zechariah 2:14(10)-4:7

A question of conscience

Conscience is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Whenever my mother announced she had a ‘bone to pick’ with me, my blood would run cold. What had she discovered about me?

From the age of eleven, right into adulthood, whenever my mother announced she had a bone to pick with me I would break out in a cold sweat. I had a fear bordering on paranoia that she would find out about something I did in the winter of 1962 that was very naughty. My heart had sunk to my shoes when a young lady informed she was going to inform my mother about a particularly ribald remark I'd made to her. To this day I still recall the chill I felt inside, as though she’d picked up an icicle and stabbed me through the heart with it.

Even in my twenties, if my mother had a bone to pick with me, I immediately thought my sin had been found out. On the plus side, it was always a relief to discover that what mum wanted to take issue with (at least to my mind) was far less serious than the one I feared. Another bonus was that the incident deterred me from repeating the crime.

Most, if not all of us, have skeletons in our cupboards; secrets we would not want anyone to know about. Some may have crimes they want to cover up while, for others, there are embarrassing misdemeanours and peccadilloes they don't want even their nearest and dearest to know about. 

In this week’s Parasha, the conscience of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer is smitten when Pharaoh needs someone to interpret his dreams. The cupbearer suddenly remembers the dreams he and Pharaoh’s baker had when they were in prison, and the young Hebrew who interpreted them. The conscience of Pharaoh's butler triggers Joseph’s rise to power.

The consciences of Joseph’s brothers also become active. When Jacob sends his sons down to Egypt, it is more than ten years since they sold Joseph to the Midianites. Their brother has been out of sight and out of mind for more than a decade and when the brothers go to buy bread in Egypt, they don’t recognise him. The young Egyptian with shaved head and body, and heavy eye makeup looks nothing like the teenager they sold into slavery. Joseph, however, recognises his brothers and sets in motion a plan to bring his entire family to Egypt.

When Joseph accuses them of being spies, they blurt out that they have a father and a young brother and a brother who is ‘no more’. After three days in prison, Joseph releases them on the condition that Simeon remains in Egypt and that they return with Benjamin.

With our sophisticated ‘scientific’ worldview, we tend not to look for cause and effect. We listen with fascination and awe as rock ’n’ roll physicist Professor Brian Cox explains how Quantum Theory explains life, the universe and everything, and assures us that there’s no ‘woo woo’ involved. However, when bad things happen, I suspect even the most die-hard materialist (even though he might not say it out loud) thinks, ‘Why is this happening to me?’

Joseph’s brothers certainly do. And the answer they all come up with is that they are being punished for what they did to Joseph. They had sold him and by now he was probably dead.

I used to be a prison chaplain and one of the surprising things I discovered was that those who were guilty of the worst crimes were the ones who tried most desperately to deny their guilt. A friend of mine, who is also a prison chaplain, told me that one of the first men he met when he started the job had knifed another man to death. But he’d been wrongly imprisoned, he said, because although he stabbed the man, his victim would have lived if the ambulance has arrived sooner!

At least Joseph’s brothers were prepared to hold up their hands and admit their guilt.

The rabbis see Joseph as a picture of the Messiah. Some of them could not reconcile the picture of a Messiah, who reigns as king and yet suffers pain and death, so they came up with the concept of a two Messiahs: Messiah ben Joseph who is killed in the battle against Gog and Magog, and Messiah ben David who triumphs over the armies of Armillus and reigns as king. But why should there be a conflict between suffering and ruling? Joseph both suffered and reigned over Egypt, and David not only reigned over Israel; he was also driven out of the land by his own son and was rejected by his people. 

The Jewish anti-missionary Rabbi Emmanuel Shochet claims the Jewish people ‘invented’ the Messiah, that they have 'the patent on him' and that when Messiah comes they will recognise him and believe in him. Ten years after Joseph’s brothers sent him to Egypt, he was unrecognisable to them and he had to make himself known. If the Messiah came 2,000 years ago, as many Jews and Gentiles believe, how are his Jewish brothers today going to recognise him?  

If Joseph is a picture of the Messiah as some of Israel’s sages taught, the inability of his brothers to recognise him may well parallel the relationship between Messiah and the Jewish nation, as Isaiah the prophet wrote: ‘Who has believed or report and to whom has the arm of Adonai been revealed?’

Messiah’s Jewish brothers (and also Gentiles) will need to have their consciences awakened to recognise that their 2,000 year-long rejection of Jesus parallels the rejection of Joseph by his nearest and dearest.

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