Bigger than enmity

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

I had a conversation with a customs official one year while traveling to a foreign country. When he asked: occupation please, I said reading and writing. The man said, I mean what do you do for a living. I repeated: reading and writing. He looked at me and then filled in the box for occupation: reading and writing. I wasn’t hiding anything. I was telling the truth. Reading and writing, some singing, and some shepherding. 

We call this making a living. I would have filled in the box the same way when I was 8 years old. What do you do for a living? Reading and writing. I’m still doing that, reading and writing, some shepherding, a little singing and lute playing. 

When Pharaoh asks the brothers, what’s your occupation (Gen.47:3)? They answer: we’re shepherds. Our ancestors —  also shepherds. That appeals to me on so many levels so I will add it to my resume if I ever apply for a job again. Occupation please: shepherd. Skills: reading and writing. Lute playing. I suppose that qualifies me for almost everything as I see by the skill set in government these days, I would welcome an appointee with reading and writing skills. Lute player. Shepherd especially.

Joseph is a shepherd, too. He learns how to be an excellent shepherd. I know a few shepherds and those I know who qualify are the most excellent individuals. They shepherd their homes and it is the highest calling.

Joseph is known as one of the seven shepherds, he is with good company Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and David. They were all good caretakers, earning themselves the title shepherd, and David added a skill that rounded them out nicely: he taught them music. David taught them to play a singing harp in the palace of the Queen.

Joseph had another quality he was known for, once he started talking, you never knew what he would say. When his brothers showed up, he could have been angry with them and vengeful. They had sold him out to Egypt, now he was a big shot and held their destiny in his hands. 

When they met up again, Joseph opened with the truth: you sold me out (45:4). His brother Judah got up in his face, he came close. Big clue, it’s the closeness that melted Joseph and turned what could have erupted into anger and vengeance into reconciliation and healing. 

Joseph could be so right. He had reason enough to be angry, but face to face he d8ssolved and moved into a larger space than where he had been living. That’s the secret quality of the shepherd, they are transcenders. He transcended anger, that didn’t change their history together, it eclipsed it.  

It wasn’t you who sent me here, Joseph says, but God (45:8). God sent me ahead of you to save lives. 

I was in that room with Joseph when he said that, I’ve been in that room many times when instead of enmity erupting, empathy erupts. Closeness brings that. The clue is in brother Yehudah’s name (44:18): when he comes close, he says within me, is God. Yehudah’s name contains the four-lettered intimate name for God.

Joseph is also known as the harvester. He’s the one who harvests events for truth. And when he spoke in that room? What he said was a surprise, most of all, to him.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Central Reform Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.