'God meant it for good': A Jewish reading of Joseph's story

At the end of the book of Genesis Joseph reassures his brothers that he does not bear them a grudge for their horrific treatment of him when they were all younger. As children he was their father's favourite and they were jealous. So they threw him down a pit full of scorpions and sold him to Arab merchants. Later Joseph becomes chief minister to Pharaoh and is in a position of power over his brothers. But when they express their fear of him he tells them not to worry about repercussions as a result of their former behaviour. The reason he gives is: 'Although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for good' (Genesis 50:20).

But Joseph does not say that he is 'reconciled' with his brothers. In fact, there does not appear to be any Hebrew word for reconciliation, the nearest in modern Hebrew being 'pius', a loan-word meaning 'appeasement'.

The audience waits for the lighting of the National Menorah in Washington, DC.Reuters

This is because the Bible and Jewish life have taught us that no two people are really equal in a relationship and the whole of life is about accommodation and coming to terms with things.

In our own day there are many groups claiming that they have a monopoly on suffering, but no group has suffered as much as the Jewish people in both breadth of time and depth of experience.

So Jews have had to manufacture ways of dealing with this suffering.

The story of Joseph and his brothers has inspired many great writers, artists and musicians. But this is just one of many such biblical stories, which together with later rabbinic teachings, instruct on ways of coping with the fall-out from Jewish suffering in our imperfect world.

Many remedies are suggested in order to help the Jewish people to survive on an everyday basis. Here are just a few injunctions with which we have been brought up from cradle to grave.

Keep your head down and pretend you don't exist. Do good deeds and G-d will look after you. Integrate but don't assimilate. Don't engage in dialogue with other religions, ethnic groups or philosophies. Do engage in dialogue with other religions, ethnic groups and philosophies. Don't attend university where you might get beaten up just for being Jewish or worse. Do attend university, because although everything points to the contrary, you are not a second-class citizen. Meditate daily and the world will just pass you by.

Become socially active. Engage the anti-Semites. Don't become socially active. Don't engage the anti-Semites. Study Torah and pray all day. Only interact with your immediate family or local Jewish community. Don't be narrow-minded: this is our problem. Don't be tribal – make a point of engaging with non-Jewish people (especially our 'enemies') and constantly explain yourself to them. If they get nasty, avoid confrontation and just turn the other cheek (yes, this one is an original Jewish injunction, I'm afraid). If they get nasty, report the incident to the police. If the police get nasty? Then just turn the other cheek.

And then if all has failed, either leave the Jewish religion and convert, or emigrate to Israel (this latter suggestion is of course a positive mitzvah in itself, but more and more people from my area are packing up and going out of fear).

Many examples could be given of individual Jews and Jewish groups trying to carry out the above, often contradictory injunctions. But apart from emigration to Israel, none of these remedies actually works. The reason why the other scenarios simply don't work in the long run is there in the Bible, specifically in Exodus 3.

In Exodus 3, G-d is asking Moses to take the Jewish people out of Egypt into the Promised Land of Israel. Moses is apprehensive about encountering the divine. 'An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from amid the bush.' The bush is later identified as Mount Sinai, and indeed the word for 'bush' in Hebrew is similar to the word Sinai. But the words bush and Sinai in Hebrew also mean 'hatred'. What G-d is telling the Jewish people through Moses is that the hatred that has been the Jewish experience throughout history is actually endemic in human nature and will never be quenched. But (and it is a big but), Moses should also tell the people that He is not only the G-d of their ancestors, but also Eyeh asher eyeh. Tell the children of Israel that 'Eyeh has sent me to you.'

There is no verb 'to be' in the present tense in Hebrew and the phrase means 'I will be that I will be'. This passage which has been shamefully mistranslated into other languages as 'I am' is interpreted in Judaism as meaning: 'I will be with the Jewish people in their present grief and sorrow and I will also be with them in their future subjugations by other kingdoms.'

In other words, G-d is not simply watching over the Jewish people. He is not only going to accompany them in all their troubles, but he is actually there in the midst of their suffering, and is in fact suffering with them. G-d is there in the midst of the hatred, suffering with his Jewish people and will never forsake them.

This message is what has kept the Jewish people going for 4000 years.

The Joseph stories are always read around the Jewish festival of Chanuka, the winter festival of commemoration and dedication. Chanuka retells the story of the first major attempt to prevent the Jewish people from adhering to their specific and often peculiar habits and customs. These include circumcision of baby boys, the practice of shechita and eating kosher food.

Attempts were also made by the original Syrian Greeks and their many emulators throughout history to prevent Jewish adherence to Shabbat and festivals. So, throughout the ages, games are played and other tactics employed to prevent the powers-that-be (and especially the Christian world) from interfering in the free expression of the Jewish religion, as is happening again today and especially in some of the most libertarian countries in the western world.

So, as we remember the story of Joseph which appears to turn out well in the end, and as we light the Chanukah candles in memory of the miracle of Chanukah, which takes place this year during the first week of December, let's finish with a modern story.

Eight years ago, my first grandchild was born in the Laniado Hospital, Netanyah, Israel. The Laniado Hospital was built from scratch by the Klausenberger Rebbe. The Klausenberger Rebbe was married with 11 children when the Nazis and their collaborators in Eastern Europe struck Hungary where he lived. The Rebbe survived the Holocaust in a number of concentration camps, but his entire family were murdered. Eventually, the Rebbe arrived in the new State of Israel and dedicated himself to building a hospital that would particularly help new mothers and babies. He who had lost everything started again and never complained.

This is an account of his reaction when informed that his eleventh and youngest child had just died of severe illness in concentration camp, having managed to survive the war.

'The Rebbe was in the hospital in Displaced Persons camp when he received the news of his son's death. He rose from his sickbed, recited the full blessing with great emotion and announced in a voice that could be heard from one end of the hospital to the other that he did not harbour any complaints against G-d's judgment and that he accepted all of His decrees with love.'

So this is what Joseph meant when he told his brothers that 'G-d had intended it for good'. And that is why so many people regard the Shoah, in which the religious Jews of Europe were mostly wiped out, as the beginning of the Messianic redemption. Huge and seemingly inexplicable suffering from our point of view may have reasons on the Divine plane which we cannot understand. And this is why the creation of the State of Israel which was fought for against all the odds by its tiny, beleaguered population (including people who had just arrived as human skeletons from the concentration camps of Europe) was and still is an integral part of this equation, as exemplified by the work being done by Laniado Hospital and many other Israeli institutions.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.