Who is Jean Valjean? One could assign him any number of labels. He is a brother and an uncle ("he stole a loaf of bread to save his sister's son.") He is a convict (number 24601 to be precise), a parole-breaker (and a repeated escapee from prison), a mayor, a factory owner, a wealthy individual who has risen from the depths of abject poverty, and a man who at one stage of life rejected God only to recognize that his soul was in God's hands. Now, at a critical stage of the story, Valjean recognizes, in a case of mistaken identity, that another man is going to trial for his sins. In asking the question, "Who am I?" Valjean must attempt to understand himself, even as grave consequences confront him at every turn. Valjean is a complex individual. Simple labels do not do the depth of his character justice.
Like Valjean, our biblical ancestors were also complex individuals (and herein lies the beauty of our sacred texts). For the past two weeks we have been treated to the story of Joseph. Who was Joseph? Joseph was the favorite son of his father, a despised brother, an interpreter of dreams, a man rejected by his family, left for dead at the bottom of a pit, only to be sold into slavery where he was forced to develop a new identity. Joseph became a great source of support to Pharaoh, he built his own family in Egypt, as a man of vision he helped to guide a nation through times of abundance and famine, and yet he was constantly haunted by his unresolved past.
Joseph was a complex individual. Simple labels do not do the depth of his character justice. And this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, offers us an opportunity to see the complexity of Joseph, and through this lens, the profound depth within ourselves and within others. In a time of famine, with no food, Joseph's brothers have come to Egypt searching for nourishment. Joseph knows that these men are his brothers and he accuses them of being spies. However, Joseph's brothers do not know that they are standing before their long lost brother, until he says, in two simple Hebrew words "ani Yosef," "I am Joseph." He then proceeds to ask his brothers "Is my father still alive?" Even as the viceroy of Egypt, as a man who has amassed wealth and riches, as a man whose inner demons are still unresolved, he collapses emotionally in the presence of his brothers, and he still cries out for his father.
Simple labels - black or white, Jew or Gentile, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic, Sunni or Shiite, Palestinian or Israeli -- do not do justice to the profound depth, the sheer complexity that can be found in each individual's struggle for enlightenment and growth. Thus, for a character in a musical or novel to say, "I am Jean Valjean," or similarly, for a character in the Bible to say, ani Yosef, is not only to say "I am Joseph," but also to say "I am the complexity, the depth, the joy and the accomplishment that is Joseph, just as I am the pain, the suffering, the heartbreak, and the in-between that comprises my soul." Recognizing the complexity of ourselves as individuals, and recognizing the complexity present in others is never easy, but is deeply rewarding, and adds greater depth to our relationships with one another.