The Bible Says What? ‘Joseph was cruel to his brothers for good reason’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Joseph was cruel to his brothers for good reason’

 Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a progressive Jewish response

 Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
 Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi

I recently marked 50 years since my batmitzvah in a service at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. As well as rereading my Torah portion, I was honoured to be able to read the same sermon my rabbinic mentor, Rabbi John Rayner, had given. 

The main thing that struck me this time around was how Joseph grew and changed – from an introverted teenager, who lived in his dreams, to an extrovert adult taking charge of the whole of Egypt with immense power and capability. He changed in other ways, too. Although the young Joseph seemed oblivious to his brothers’ feelings, he was not cruel or callous. 

We soon see how different he had become. Pretending not to know them, he speaks to them harshly. He takes Simeon in ransom until the brothers return with Benjamin, knowing the pain it would cause their father. Yet underneath it all, we can feel Joseph’s heartbreak. Hearing Reuben address his brothers, he turns away and weeps. 

I remember the tensions among me and my siblings, even though my parents did their best to treat us equally. How much deeper would the problems have been in Jacob’s family when he made his favouritism so obvious? 

Yet the brothers all grew up. Judah, especially, learns to take responsibility for his actions. At the start he is heartless and mercenary, but through his experiences he learns humility and compassion. 

All of us have the capacity for growth and change. What can seem important can come to be trivial. We can learn compassion, as Judah did, and forgiveness, as Joseph did. True living is growing and changing, never ceasing to learn from life, even at its most difficult. 

  •  Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi serves Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

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