Seeing The Bigger Picture

Joseph reminds us that our perspective of reality is limited compared to the ultimate meaning that God perceives.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Remember the Midrash of the blind people and the elephant? Each one touched a different part of the animal and then described the elephant based on their own particular perceptions. 

One compared the elephant to a long, powerful tube. A second portrayed the elephant as an enormous barrel. A third, feeling the elephant’s ears, depicted it as resembling large drapes. Each person described what they knew--accurate as a characterization of part of the elephant, but completely misleading as a representation of the entire animal.

That same discrepancy between individual perception and objective reality recurs every day. All of us view the world through our own eyes, listen to its sounds through our own ears, and analyze what we see and hear through our own blend of personality, culture and training. The world we live with--a filtering of external fact through subjective perception and collective history--is literally one of our own making.

As a result, we often do not recognize the larger import of events because we are chained to our own particularity. The truth is that we plan our behavior from our own perspective, and we analyze the consequences from our own perspective.

The Larger Picture

The result is that we often fail to perceive the larger picture. We become blind to the harmony and unity that links everything that exists to each other and provides coherence by reference to the source of all existence.

That same inability to see the larger picture is exemplified by the fears of Josephs’s brothers. Recall that the entire family--the patriarch Jacob and the eleven remaining sons had moved to Egypt upon Joseph’s recommendation. They settled in Goshen and busied themselves with shepherding sheep. Throughout this time, the courtier, Joseph, treated his family with great honor and love.

But with the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers become terrified that there are no longer any restraints on their powerful sibling. Perhaps, they reason, Joseph was kind to us and protected us for our father’s sake, out of respect for his feelings. Now that our father no longer lives, our brother will seek revenge on us for all the evil we did to him.

From the perspective of the brothers, what they did to Joseph was certainly unforgivable. After all, they discussed killing him, and only later decided to sell him into slavery. All of Joseph’s suffering as a slave in Potiphar’s house and in the Egyptian prison was the fault of his brothers back in Canaan. From their perspective, and from him, Joseph had every right to be furious with them.

Response to Their Fear

Yet Joseph’s position as a religious role model emerges from his response to their fear. Rather than restricting his perspective to his own subjective position, Joseph struggles to understand what happened from God’s vantage point.  So he 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 sustain you and your children.”

According to Rashi (11th-century France), Joseph is struck by the fact that although his father may no longer be living, the God of Israel still lives, and still commands moral behavior. The standards of Israel’s God, embodied in the Torah and in later rabbinic sources, retain a commanding voice because Israel’s commander still speaks.

From the human perspective, Josephs’ brothers sold their brother into slavery. From the divine perspective, they initiated a process that would assure the survival of countless human beings many years later.

We cannot know the consequences of our deeds. Like Joseph’s brothers, we must be responsible for our own actions from our own perspective. But like Joseph himself, we also need to look to a higher, more encompassing vision of what life can be. Joseph’s response is an articulate reminder that we do not assign ultimate meaning; God does.

May your perspective reflect God’s vision of a world redeemed.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.