Our rabbis point to this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, as a central story of t'suvah.
Many years earlier, Joseph's brothers sold Joseph into slavery. They deceived their father into thinking that his youngest and most beloved son was dead, and did not express any remorse about abandoning their brother.
It would have been understandable and perhaps even predictable for Joseph's narrative to end there. We might expect him to have lived a despondent, lonely life, suffering from the torments of his youth.
But instead, he harnesses the powers of his interpretive powers for the betterment of those around him. He leaves jail and eventually comes to serve the Pharaoh. Through his amazing gifts he is able to save the Egyptian people from what would have been certain starvation.
Meanwhile, his brothers experience a famine, and they come to Egypt to beg the leadership for some food. Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers. Through a bit of chicanery Joseph devises a plot to see if Judah and the rest of the brothers have matured since abandoning Joseph those many years ago. After a short while, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, saying, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" He also says, "Don't be sad and let there be no anger in your eyes because you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life." After speaking, Joseph kisses each of his brothers.
This story is amazing. It is powerful ... even more powerful given the number of words that are allotted to it. The story of Joseph takes up three full Torah portions. His narrative is one of the most important in the entire Torah. The beauty of the words leap off the page, and we do not need any outside interpretation in order to feel the emotional depth of the words.
Joseph was an amazing man. He grew up abandoned and lonely. He could have lived with hate in his heart, but instead he learned to harness this great gift of dream interpretation so that he could be a blessing to others. Years later when he had power over his brothers, we might expect him to exact a certain amount of revenge. But instead, he responds with forgiveness. He responds with love.
It's unfortunate that there are not more Joseph's in our world, helping us interpret our dreams, and challenging us to respond with love to the forces of oppression that strike our lives.
It's thus fitting that we read this Torah portion one day after the passing of a modern-day Joseph, Nelson Mandela. Like Joseph, Mandela lived with hope in his heart and gentleness in his actions. He helped us interpret our dreams so that we could lives filled with the bounty of spirit and freedom, friendship and community, friendship and love.
In 1962, Mandela was convicted of treason by the South African white government minority, and he spent 27 years in prison. Like Joseph, we can imagine him living a painful life after emancipation; but instead he used his gifts to be a blessing to others.
In 2007, he was asked how he kept his hatred in check. His answer: "Hatred clouds the mind."
In his autobiography, he wrote: For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others It seems like the narrative of Joseph is not just a story.
Many of us will not be able to unify a country like Mandela, or to serve the head of state like Joseph. But all of us can live with hope in our hearts. All of us can use our gifts to be blessings to others. We have wonderful role models. And I would like to think that if Nelson Mandela were talking to us, he would say that we have the power of ourselves.
Tonight, we mourn the death of a modern Joseph. But as we mourn, we also become dream interpreters of our own lives. Let us follow the paths of our role-models, our teachers, our dreamers.
I join together with the millions of our South African brothers and sisters as they remember Nelson Mendela: Hamba Gashle Tata Madiba - Go well ... Farewell Madiba.