Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33
Two weekends ago I was in New Haven for a reunion of my college rugby team.
It wasn’t the official Yale reunion, with white tents and fancy hors-d’oeuvres
—no, it was decidedly casual; very off-the-books.
We piled into an Airbnb, cooked our own dinners—tacos, spaghetti—
and mostly just sat around in the living room,
telling stories from our years on the team.
There were a few improvements—
people brought partners, a toddler or two,
and on the whole we drank a lot more seltzer, and a lot less beer—
–but otherwise it felt like old times. It was great.
On Saturday we piled into cars and drove downtown to walk around campus,
and during the short drive back to the house,
my teammate DiCo piped up from the back seat and asked me,
“So what’s your next sermon going to be about?”
“I almost always use the lectionary,” I replied.
“I don’t have to, where I’m serving now, but old habits die hard.
The options are a Matthew text where Jesus walks on water,
or part of the Joseph story from Genesis.
I really want to do the Genesis passages—
my colleague and I are teaching a class on the Old Testament this fall,
and this could be a sort of preview of coming attractions—
–but the problem is that I don’t really love the Joseph story, you know?
It’s just not my favorite part.”
“Why not?” DiCo asked.
“I dunno,” I said, “this may sound odd, but the Joseph story isn’t weird enough.
I like my Bible stories strange, full of unusual, miraculous stuff.
And that’s how Genesis starts—this really colorful book, with miracles galore—
–but then when you get to the Joseph story, it’s like there’ s genre shift—
–it becomes less fantastical and more realistic.
There are no more angelic appearances, the voice of God doesn’t talk to people directly, they live and move in a world that feels more like our own.
And that’s fine, if you’re reading, like, a modern short story,
but if I’m going to be reading the Bible,
I like the characters to be wrestling angels, or slaying giants,
or escaping from a lions’ den!
but the Joseph story has none of this—
–I mean, there are some mysterious dreams
that clue him in about the coming famine
—the seven thin cows that eat the seven fat cows,
the seven plump and the seven blighted ears of corn—
–but the most that can be said of Joseph as a character
is that he gets really good at predicting grain futures, and rises to a position of prominence in the bureaucracy of the Egyptian state—
–and while this is certainly admirable, it’s not exactly exciting— you know?
It would be like reading a comic book about the Secretary of the Interior.
And there’s this nice part at the end,
when Joseph and his brothers have this wonderful reunion–
–but that’s not the text the day I’m preaching,
I’ve got the part from the beginning,
where Joseph’s dad gives him the technicolor coat
and his brothers get all jealous and throw him in the pit—
–I mean, what am I supposed to do with that story?
Where’s the redemption in that?”
Do you ever have those moments when you’re in the middle of talking about something and you become suddenly and painfully self-aware?
When you’ve been going on and on about something for a while,
and you realize you’re the only one talking,
and you wonder, “Does anyone else actually care?”
So right about this point, this happened to me—
I thought, “we’re in the middle of a rugby reunion reunion;
“why am I talking about the lectionary?”
So I paused.
I expected a few nods, a polite acknowledgement,
some throat-clearing and a subtle change of subject.
But instead, from the back seat, DiCo erupted with a sharp, impassioned rebuke:
“Fox!” he all but shouted; “Are you kidding me?? That’s the best part!”
“What?” I said. “Really? This scene?”
“Yes!” DiCo insisted. “The scene in the pit. It’s like this massive turning point; it’s the moment when the whole book of Genesis comes together. It’s when Reuben, the unsung hero of the story, interrupts a cycle of generational trauma that’s been in play throughout the entire book!”
“Really?” I asked again. “Reuben?”
“Yes!” DiCo shouted, “Reuben!” DiCo sighed. “This was my Torah portion for my b. mitzvah; I wrote my whole d’var Torah on this! Don’t you remember?”
Now, before I go any further, I should probably tell you about DiCo,
because if I start talking about my friend’s Bar Mitzvah
you’re going to think I was on a rugby team with middle school boys.
But no, DiCo’s about my age; he came out as trans a few years after college,
and around the same time, he also converted to Judaism.
DiCo is this tiny little Irish-Italian kid from Queens, New York,
who went to Stuyvesant high school in lower Manhattan—
–a public school with an entrance exam
that draws the smartest kids from all five boroughs in New York.
At age 16, a few weeks into the start of his junior year,
he and his classmates watched through the school windows
as first one and then the second of the twin towers fell, just three blocks away.
They evacuated on foot, in the midst of falling ash.
New York was never the same, and neither was DiCo.
He arrived at Yale deeply shaken.
He was way too small for rugby, but joined the team anyway—
–we were a tight-knit community, a band of misfit toys amidst
the preppiness of Yale—
–and DiCo found a place among us, playing B-side wing.
After college, he returned to New York and started teaching
in public and charter schools,
working with students who faced racism, poverty, immigration issues, hunger.
In a school that had no resources to support it,
DiCo started a speech and debate team,
coaching his students to research, argue, prepare, persuade,
and he pushed them, and himself;
hustling to get them to tournaments they couldn’t possibly afford
to compete against prep-school kids they couldn’t possibly beat—
–teaching them to tell their stories, coaching them to find their voice–
until they started getting good, until they started winning.
Around this time, DiCo converted to Judaism,
a religion that took trauma seriously, that didn’t look away from pain–
–a religion organized, he once pointed out to me,
around the destruction of a building—the temple in Jerusalem,
razed by the Romans in 70 AD—
a community still grappling with how to be community
in the face of this gaping hole in the sacred skyline of their faith—
and he immersed himself in Torah study,
even enrolling in rabbinical school for a year
before teaching lured him back.
He landed a dream job at Stuyvesant,
and might have stayed there for the rest of his career—
–except that one day, all of a sudden and out of the blue,
he became a Human of New York.
In case you’re not familiar with it,
Humans of New York is a photo blog featuring people from all walks of life—New Yorkers the author encounters on the street.
He asks to take their pictures, he asks them for their story.
It’s this fascinating portrait, in photographs and words,
of a broad spectrum of humanity.
One day, DiCo was featured on Humans of New York—
or rather—one of his former students was, a young man who’d
survived significant childhood trauma and grown up
to be a teacher and a debate coach himself—
–and who said to the author, you also have to meet DiCo,
and so he profiled the two of them; told this whole story.
Humans of New York has millions of followers,
and suddenly DiCo, and everything he stood for, was famous overnight.
Someone set up a gofundme account, and donations flooded in—
over a million dollars within a day.
as well as calls from the media, large donors, the mayor of New York.
Suddenly, he had the funding and connections to do the thing he’d been doing,
for years, on a shoestring.
And DiCo, characteristically, seized the moment.
He left his job at Stuyvesant, and pursued his dream full-time;
he hired coaches, organized tournaments, set up a non-profit
–the Brooklyn Debate League, with the goal of bringing
speech and debate to every public school in the borough.
As I was preparing this sermon I kept uncovering these parallels
to the Joseph story—
–this experience of trauma, these quiet years of faithful service,
this meteoric rise to prominence,
this seizing of an opportunity to really make a difference,
not in his own life but in the lives of others, in the city where he lived—
a story whose human hero doesn’t wrestle angels or slay giants,
but who has a readiness born of years of hard labor and stubborn hopefulness,
a dogged refusal to stop believing that people could be good;
–a vision of a God who appears not in a miraculous theophany,
but in a surprising and satisfying plot twist, this unexpected circumstance
that wasn’t supernatural but still felt like divine intervention.
After the reunion, I called DiCo and asked permission to share this story with you.
I also asked him to send me the link to his B Mitvah recording,
so that I could listen again to his d’var Torah.
I no longer needed to ask what he saw in the Joseph story,
but what did he see in this part at the beginning,
the scene at the pit?
Why was this the clincher, the moment when everything changed?
What DiCo read, in this part of Genesis, was not just the story of an individual,
but the saga of a family—
and in fact, that’s how this whole final part of Genesis announces itself:
the first verse doesn’t say, “this is the story of Joseph”;
it says, “this is the story of the family of Jacob.”
And within this particular family story, the story of the family of Jacob,
there are cycles of violence and patterns of trauma
that follow the characters through the entire book.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—every generation repeats the cycle
of paternal preference and sibling rivalry—
–the father favors the younger son, the brothers get angry—
and the result is trauma, violence and estrangement.
Cain kills Abel. Abraham abandons Ishmael and Hagar
to fend for themselves in the desert,
and nearly murders Isaac, his remaining son.
Jacob deceives his father for the blessing
and cons his brother for the birthright, and has to flee.
And even though Jacob knows first-hand just how damaging it can be,
he prefers one son, Joseph, over all the rest.
Each of these characters is caught in the same cycle,
and seems destined to re-enact, generation to generation,
the same trauma they’ve experienced themselves.
DiCo traced this pattern, beautifully, through the story of Genesis,
focusing, in particular, on a single Hebrew verb, shelach.
This word shows up, again and again, throughout these stories.
It means “to send out,” or “to stretch out,” and it’s quite versatile—
Abraham shelached his son Ishmael into the wilderness,
and he also shelached his arm against his son Isaac
when he raised the knife in sacrifice on Mt Moriah.
Isaac, in turn, shelached Jacob,
sending him away after the stole the birthright and the blessing.
At the start of the Joseph story,
Jacob shelachs his son Joseph to go find the brothers in the field,
even though Jacob knows those brothers hate him;
and the brothers get so angry that they want Joseph dead.
I loved listening to DiCo tell this story,
the lusty, guttural enjoyment with which he pronounced that verb shelach.
But I loved even more what he did next.
There’s one character in the story, DiCo said, who interrupts this pattern;
who takes this verb Shelach and uses it in another way.
Reuben, the oldest brother, the one who would be likeliest to inherit,
who has the most to lose from Jacob’s preference for this younger son,
Reuben sees this cycle and he wants to interrupt it;
he sees how prone to violence his brothers are, and he wants to make it stop.
He hears them conspiring to kill Joseph, and he says,
“let us not take his life,”
and when the brothers don’t listen, he tries again, a different way:
“Lay no hand upon him,” Reuben urges—using that same verb—
“do not shelach your hand.”
And the brothers hear, in Reuben’s urging, echoes of their family stories,
the trauma built in to the patterns of human relationship—
–but they also hear an alternative, another way,
and so they don’t kill Joseph—they preserve his life.
Reuben’s action doesn’t solve the problem—
Joseph’s still in the pit, he’ll still be sold to Egypt
when another brother spots a band of roaming Ishmaelites—
–the descendants of their great-uncle Ishmael, who was himself cast out—
–but it does prevent a fratricide,
it interrupts the cycle of violence that has beset this all-too-human family.
It makes possible what comes next—
–Joseph’s descent into Egypt, and then his rise to prominence,
–the dreams and their interpretation,
–the agricultural policy-making that saves Egypt—and the rest of the world
–from seven years of famine.
Reuben’s intervention, here at the start of the story,
is a brave act of persuasive speech that paves the way for change—
–that opens possibilities far beyond anything the brothers could foresee or consider,
because it opens the way for life to continue,
for God to turn things around.
I once asked DiCo, why speech and debate?
Of all the activities you could bring to public schools, why this one?
And he said to me,
“Why was the school shooting at Parkland different from all the other shootings?
There are so many, and they are all so awful. Why was Parkland special?
Why did people in power take notice, why did bills get passed?”
And he said, “It’s because every student at Parkland was required to take
speech and debate, which is why the Parkland survivors,
after the shooting was over—heck, during the shooting itself—
why they immediately started talking.
People accused them of being paid actors,
because they couldn’t believe that high school students could be that articulate, that persuasive, that organized—
–but they were, because they’d been taught to be—
they knew how to speak in a way that could get people to listen—
–and now they had a chance to interrupt this cycle of violence,
this pattern of school shootings, to get at its systemic roots—
–and so they took it.
That’s what I want to do for every kid,” he said.
“I want to help them find their voice.”
It can feel, sometimes, like we’re surrounded by destruction,
caught up in cycles of violence, patterns of and trauma.
Fire engulfing a seaside town in Maui,
violence erupting dockside in Montgomery,
–each devastating in and of itself,
each also a symptom of something much larger—
–a pattern, a cycle in which all of us are trapped–
entrenched systemic racism, global environmental disaster.
–problems so large they can make us feel disillusioned, disempowered, helpless—
–as though the only thing that could possibly rescue us would be
an angelic appearance, a divine intervention.
But the story of Joseph and his brothers suggests otherwise–
it suggests that we have the power to disrupt the patterns that repeat themselves, the cycles we feel trapped in—
–even if that power is simply to speak a different possibility, suggest a different way—
–this story tells us that God can work with that, that God can make something of it that is bigger than ourselves.
“You intended it for evil,” Joseph tells his brothers, “but God intended it for good.”
May it be so.