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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Joseph, The Big Picture and The Problem of Suffering

At my synagogue recently, we have been looking lately at what it means to know God and to seek his help amid the challenges and contradictions of life. A few weeks ago we looked at Jacob and his family rededicating themselves to God after the very messy incidents surrounding the rape of Dinah and the subsequent massacre of the men of Shechem.

We examined last week what it means to live between our problems and the promises of God, and how in the midst of it all, undetected except in retrospect, is the Presence of God who says to us "not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit."

In Parshat Vayigash, which includes Genesis 46, we find added help for living amidst the challenges and contradictions of life. This is a lesson we very much need, because all of us live out our lives in the space between the promise and the problem, and in living in such a space, we need all the help we can get. It is also a lesson we need because it provides a much-needed perspective normally eclipsed in our current post-modern generation: the lesson of keeping in mind the Big Picture.

Joseph was a Big Picture man. He was also someone who faced more problems, challenges and contradictions than most of us will ever know. His own brothers tried to murder him, and sold him into slavery. He spent at least ten years, perhaps more, in a filthy Pharonic prison, framed on a rape charge. He was obliged to build a new life for himself far from the loving father he had known.

Yes, he rose to great heights. But also yes, he arose from great depths. One of the factors that helped him to cope and to maintain his personal momentum was "The Big Picture."

When his story in Torah begins, in Genesis 37, we see him telling is brothers his grandiose dreams. . . dreams of ascendancy and superiority over his brothers and even over his parents. He surely did not know how or when these dreams would be played out on the stage of his life. But he kept the dreams alive in his heart. And perhaps, just perhaps, those dreams kept him alive, too.

How do we know this?

In last week's parasha, in Genesis 42, when Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to buy food to tide them over during the famine, we read that it was when he saw them standing before him that Joseph remembered the dreams he had about them some twenty years previously. He drew a connection between their coming to him now in a subservient status, and his dreams to that effect when he was a teen-ager.

Joseph had kept The Big Picture in his mind and heart all those years: he didn’t know how it would work itself out, but he had kept these things alive within him. And equally to the point, these memories kept him spiritually alive amid his trying circumstances.

One of the reasons he did not get pulled down into a whirlpool of despair by his unjust slavery and imprisonment, is that his dreams—his Big Picture—gave him some sort of hope and forward momentum.

We also see Joseph as a Big Picture man in this week’s parasha.

When he finally reveals himself to his brothers, some twenty-two years after they sold him into slavery, he testifies more than once to The Big Picture.

He tells them "do not be distressed or reproach yourself because you sold me hither. It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. . . .God sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt" [45:6-8].

When he tells them to not be distressed, he shares with them and with us the secret of not being distressed in trying circumstances: that is, remembering the Big Picture. Just as he had been sustained through his years of trial through knowing that there was a Big Picture of which his trying circumstances were but a part, so he encourages them to remember the Big Picture instead of being overwhelmed with guilt over their having betrayed him so deeply so long ago.

The lesson for us is clear: If we would maintain our equilibrium and momentum in the midst of the difficult trials and disappointing circumstances that confront us, we will need to avoid making our catastrophes into absolutes. We must not let our horrors become our horizons. Rather, we should always remember the Big Picture.

What does this mean?

The purposes of God are more long term than our usual horizons. God has a long-haul perspective. The trials you are facing now may be for the benefit of your grandchildren or great grandchildren—not simply yourself or your children, if you have any.

And of course, our obedience and faithfulness could effect one or two other people, or even hundreds of thousands or even millions of people not related to us, as was the case for Joseph who conceived and ran the famine relief program in Egypt.

The consequences of our obedience or disobedience have an effect beyond ourselves, or family, and our lifetime, and we need to keep that in mind.

We must remember that the purposes of God are broader than our own perspective. We tend to see things with a kind of tunnel-vision, seeing only how things effect us and those toward the center of our field of vision. But our perseverance, obedience, and faith may be for the benefit of other people and other purposes we have not taken into account. We do not know what God will do with our faithfulness: we do know that it is our responsibility to be faithful.

Joseph never would have guessed that he was being sold into slavery in order to one day be the Viceroy of all Egypt, and to effect the deliverance of thousands/millions of people, and especially his own family, and through them, God’s salvific plan for the world through the Jewish people in whom "all the families of the earth would be blessed" [see Genesis 12:3]. The purposes of God were other than what he would have imagined: and so will they often be for us.

Sometimes. God gives to us an intimation of his purposes, though the Scripture or other means. Sometimes he does not. Some of us have had our own dreams, visions, holy intimations of one kind or another. We should hold fast to these and to our faithfulness amidst the storms and contradictions of our circumstances.

We may not know why we are going through the trials we are currently facing. We may not see any purpose in them. We may not know how things are going to work out, but we can be sure that all of this somehow plays a role in the purposes of God. We can know that "all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8). Back to that in a moment.

Often that purpose is hidden from our eyes. The purposes served by our suffering and obedience may only bear fruit for others or for generations to come. Our suffering and obedience may be for the benefit of people and purposes we cannot see.

But faithfulness to God always makes sense within the scope of his Big Picture.
Remembering that should gives us all hope, perseverance, and momentum when the whirlpools of life threaten to drag us under.

An illustration from the life of a famous saintly Rabbi will bring this all into focus. It is in your bulletin. "The wise Rabbi Bunam once said in old age, when he had already grown blind: ‘I should not like to change places with our father Abraham! What good would it do God if Abraham became like blind Bunam, and blind Bunam became like Abraham? Rather than have this happen, I thing I shall try to become a little more myself.’" [As reported by Martin Buber in "The Way of Man"].

Amazingly, Rabbi Bunam saw his own afflictions within a bigger picture than his own convenience and ease. He realized that his blindness might serve a useful purpose in the Big Picture—the Big Scheme of things.

Similarly, when Scripture says that "all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose," I do not think this means that everything that happens to us as individuals is for our own benefit. Sometimes we do undergo real and tragic loss that does us no good personally. Perhaps Scripture is speaking in the collective sense: that all things that the people of God suffer individually benefit the people of God collectively. No suffering or trial that I undergo is useless and without purpose.

Joseph’s suffering was real: but he rejoiced in it because of its benefit to others within God’s plan. May we also see our trials as not without purpose, serving purposes beyond our own, even times beyond our own, within the purposes of God. And like Rabbi Bunam, may we get on with the business of trying to become a little more ourselves—embracing our lot with trust the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Joseph, the God of Rabbi Bunam, the God and Father of Yeshua our Messiah, who likewise was content with suffering, knowing it was for the benefit of others.