Off the Shelf: Revisiting a biblical tale by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’m always fascinated to discover new interpretations of biblical tales. One source of inspiration has been comments made by members of a study group or class I’m teaching. Other new ideas have been found in some traditional formats: books of essays about the parasha or d’var Torah columns in newspapers or online. Unless an interpretation plainly contradicts the facts of the biblical verse, it’s difficult to say it’s wrong. That’s because the text leaves so much to the imagination, in particular, what most of its characters are thinking or feeling. So I was curious about why I so greatly disagreed with Stephen Mitchell’s interpretations in “Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold” (St. Martin’s Essentials). His characterization of Joseph rubbed me the wrong way, even though his interpretation is entirely plausible. That left me to explore why there were such substantive differences in our thoughts about this biblical character. 
The very reason that Mitchell and I could have such different thoughts about Joseph is what attracted Mitchell to the story in the first place: “Not just because of what [the biblical text] says, but because of what it leaves unsaid. It cries out for the ancient Jewish art of midrash, or creative transformation – a way of inhabiting the text in order to deepen your understanding of it.” Mitchell wants to understand Joseph’s feelings and the transformation he believes the character undergoes. He also sees Joseph “as the most spiritual mature character in the Hebrew Bible, someone who has literally ascended from the depths to a freedom that every reader can recognize and enjoy.” It is here that I parted company with Mitchell’s ideas, but I didn’t realize that at first since this idea is not fully realized in his introduction. 
The main text of “Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness” is a retelling of the story with Mitchell filling in the gaps to describe the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Mitchell sees the young Joseph as a spoiled, arrogant youth who doesn’t take his brothers’ feelings into consideration. It’s not hard to see why his brothers would resent him: he was clearly their father’s favorite, something shown in emotional and practical ways. There comes a time, though, when Joseph’s behavior becomes too great for the brothers to ignore. While Mitchell questions what was the “final straw,” he admits it’s too hard to determine. In all this, I agree with him. It’s the next step in his thinking that proved difficult for me to accept.
When Joseph’s brothers place him in the pit and prepare to sell him into slavery, Mitchell believes that Joseph undergoes a spiritual transformation. Joseph not only lets go of the idea that he is special – recognizing his arrogance for the sin it was – but accepts that “everything that happened was God’s will, else it wouldn’t have happened... So, as strange as it sounded, it was God who had thrown him into this pit. It was God who would let him live now or die.” My problem is that I don’t believe Joseph felt no anger or despair. Mitchell’s and my thoughts are both possible interpretations of the text, but his doesn’t resonate with me because it feels unrealistic. 
Joseph’s miraculous transformation continues through all his ordeals. Being a slave doesn’t bother him; being thrown into prison doesn’t bother him because he feels sorry for Potipher’s wife. At this point, I began to wonder about Joseph’s continued tranquility of mind. Perhaps, I thought, there is something about Mitchell that makes him see Joseph’s behavior differently. The reason became clear when I looked at the short biographical blurb feature on the book jacket: “Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn, educated at Amherst, the Sorbonne, and Yale, and de-educated through intensive Zen training.” The last part of that sentence explained the way Mitchell feels about Joseph, even though he never specifically says it: his interpretation is based on the idea that Joseph went through a Zen experience while in the pit and lived the rest of his life viewing the world through Zen eyes.
This is an interesting interpretation and Mitchell uses it to explain Joseph’s behavior when his brothers come to Egypt. Joseph forgives his brothers because he sees God’s hand behind everything that happened. His concern is less for himself than for making certain his brothers understand that they need to ask for forgiveness for their own sake, not for Joseph’s. Mitchell suggests that Joseph “felt a welling-up of love for [his brothers], and it was easy to imagine what a heavy burden of conscience they might have been carrying all these years.” There is no hint of triumph or arrogance in Mitchell’s interpretation, nor does he consider that Joseph’s pride allows him to believe he, and he alone, is the center of God’s planning.
What I realize after thinking about our differences is that each of our interpretations speak more about our own experiences and thoughts than they do those of the original biblical text. At the end of the work, Mitchell claims that Joseph felt that “there was nothing [in his life experiences] that he would change. There was nothing in it that he could call evil – not the pit, not the prison, not slander, famine, destruction, death. It had all led to this moment.” The hubris of these thoughts doesn’t strike me as a Jewish approach to the story since there is no recognition that evil exists in the world – that even if we use our experiences to make us a better person, our lives might have been more spiritually satisfying if they never had occurred.
“Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness” is well written and Mitchell’s prose is easy to read. The short chapters keep the pace moving quickly. While readers don’t have to have read the biblical text in order to appreciate Joseph’s story, knowing the text helped me understand where I agreed and disagreed with Mitchell’s interpretation. Although my final thoughts are still not in tune with the author’s, reading his book was an interesting challenge. Disagreeing with an interpretation can sometimes teach us more than reading one with which we completely agree.