Joseph, A Love Story


One of the tv series I have been recently enjoying is called The Americans. It’s about two KGB spies, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, who are living in the Washington,DC era in the 1980’s. They are married to each other. They speak perfect American English. They have two children, a boy and a girl. And, they look and act like any middle class American family living in the suburbs.

But, they are a fake family. This married couple were intentionally matched up by the KGB to be with each other, to have kids together, and to live in America as spies for years. In the beginning, for the first several years, their relationship with each other was strictly business. They were a pretend family, just as they were pretend Americans. And, their children don’t know. They think they are American kids, and they would be devastated if they would find out that their whole life is a sham, and that they are tools serving the Soviet cause.

This is planned parenthood, taken to the extreme. But, what happens over time is the two KGB parents fall in love with each other, and with their own children, and they become a true family. And, the result is that these hyper-intentional, focused, calculated, goal oriented couple, suddenly find that love is complicated their planned lives.

The Americans is good drama. It’s a taut thriller. But, what I am finding most fascinating about this series is its exploration of what love is. There is a classic Hollywood notion of love which is articulated by the phrase: “Follow Your Heart.” In this idea of love, love is natural. It draws us. It’s an impulse, like the desire to eat or to feel jealous or feel angry. It chooses us. It’s not something that we choose, or that we control in any way.

But, in The Americans, love is not natural. It is something that grows over time in the most unusual way. And, it does involve choices, very deliberate choices. It’s not that we choose to love. Rather, we choose this path or that path, and whatever we choose can deepen or damage love.

If I had to choose a title for the Book of Genesis, I would call it “The Book of Love.” There are more stories about love in this book than in any other book in the Bible. One of the very first stories in the Torah is the foundational story of romantic love. In the story of Adam and Eve, Adam is alone and lonely. He searches in vain for someone to fill the emptiness in his life.

Finally, God puts him to sleep, takes one of his ribs and fashions Eve. When Adam awakes, he is immediately smitten. Adam sees something in Eve that he immediately recognizes. She will understand him because she is like him. Yet at the same time, he is attracted to her because she is his missing piece. And, the Torah then comments: and it’s because of this attraction that people fall in love and marry.

In this model of love, there is no choice. Adam and Eve were meant to be together from the beginning. They are magnetically drawn to each other, like a force of nature. It could be no other way. And, there are several examples of this kind of natural love in the Book of Bereshit. Jacob loves Rachel in this way. He sees Rachel at the well tending her flock of sheep, and he is hooked.

There is no choosing here. There is no intentionality. Jacob could no more choose to love or not love Rachel than he could choose to breathe. And, in the same is true of the way Isaac loves Esau, and Rebecca loves Jacob, and Jacob loves Joseph and Benjamin. In this model of love, love is simply effortless.

And, as reasonable as that might sound to us, there is something very strange about this. The Torah is a document that spends a lot of time speaking to us about what is not effortless and what is not natural. It posits that we are creatures of free will, capable of directing our own destiny, able to choose right or wrong. In Genesis Chapter One, God sets the pace. God thinks ahead of time. Then God creates. Then God reflects back. And, only then does God create again.

There is nothing natural here. There is nothing automatic. There is nothing that ‘has to be.’ And, yet, it would seem from the stories we have mentioned, that in the most important area of human life, love, all of these rules go out the window. When it comes to love, we are slaves. We are bound to a pre-determined destiny. We have no choice. We are simply drawn to a pre-written script.

Or, are we? If we take a closer look at the love stories in Genesis, it turns out that the ‘just follow your heart’ kind of love is what gets our heroes into the most trouble and causes them the most pain. The natural love of Rebecca of Jacob and of Isaac for Esau sets them on a collision course that generates broken hearts across several generations, and ultimately, near murder.

It isn’t as if the Torah denigrates natural love. On the contrary, the Torah celebrates this love. When Jacob has to work seven years for Rachel, the Torah says ‘vayehiyu v’enav k’yamim achadim b’ahavato ota’/these years passed by like a few days, so great was Jacob’s love. Who could not be inspired by this kind of love?

And, yet, the climactic story of the Book of Genesis, the Book of Love, is about a very different kind of love. It’s about love that doesn’t come naturally. It’s about love that requires work and effort and discipline and self-sacrifice. It’s about love that requires choice and intentionality.

We encounter this love in its most beautiful form in today’s parasha. As the parasha opens, the brothers stand before Joseph whom do they not recognize. They see an arbitrary ruler who is about to imprison their brother Benjamin for a crime he did not commit.

Judah approaches Joseph and says to him: My father had two children whom he loved like life itself. One of them died tragically. And, I promised my father that I would give my own life before I let any harm come to my youngest brother. V’nafsho k’shura b’navsho—their souls are tied together. So, I beg of you, take me as a slave in his place. Because I cannot bear to see the pain in my father’s eyes if I return alone.

And, as we know, this moves Joseph to finally drop his disguise. V’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek. Joseph couldn’t hold back his emotions anymore. He began to weep. And, he said to his brothers: Ani Yosef. I am Joseph, your brother.

This is a beautiful love story. But, it’s not about natural love. Maybe that’s because siblings don’t naturally love each other. They have to learn to do it. They have to overcome a rivalry that is built into their being. Look at what Judah has to overcome in order to make his heroic gesture. He has to set aside his father’s cruel rejection of him and his brothers for many years. In spite of this, he cannot bear to bring his father any more pain.

No doubt, Judah’s transformation was influenced by being a bereaved father himself. He lost two children. It’s likely that his own pain enabled him to identify with Jacob as a father and not simply look at him from the perspective of a wounded child.

Joseph, too, learned to love his brothers over time. He was moved by their concern for Jacob and their protection of Benjamin. He was touched by the change he saw in them. On all sides, this is a story about love that is acquired. It’s not natural. It’s the result of life experiences over time and difficult and heroic choices. And, it is consistent with the Torah’s central lesson: that we human beings are inhabited by powerful internal forces. But, we are not ruled by these forces. The choices we make in our lives will determine whether we live in a world of love or a world of hate.

The Torah is teaching us: Love is much more than a spontaneous feeling that wells up in the heart. It’s not that we can choose to love the way we choose a nice outfit. We do not coolly and rationally pick out our life’s partners and our children, the way the Jennings thought they could do in The Americans. There is an element of love that takes us, and not the other way around. There is an element of surrender, of opening ourselves to something beyond our control.

Yet, that is not the whole story. And, that is the beauty of today’s parasha. In the wonderful scene between Judah and Joseph, there is both courageous choice and humble surrender. Judah’s actions are deliberate, intentional. Joseph’s actions are spontaneous. He loses control.

Love is both: freedom and surrender. We choose and we are drawn. We learn love and we fall in love. We can bring love about through our actions, and love is also something that happens to us when we are least expecting it.

This is the message of the Joseph story. What a fitting climax to the Torah’s Book of Love.