The difference between a prophet and a sage is where each discovers God working in our lives. The prophet studies the future and points out the opportunities for righteousness and goodness that we may encounter in our life’s journey. The sage looks into the past and shows us how we made way for God’s healing presence and loving power in the choices we made and the paths we followed. The prophet fortifies us with the gift of hope. The sage strengthens us with the gift of meaning.
We need both prophets and sages. We need to hear both voices. Yet, the task of the sage is harder and greater than that of the prophet. The prophet helps us find purpose and significance in the open-ended future. The sage guides us in the search for value and meaning in our already closed past.
Joseph’s great gift was that he was both a prophet and a sage. He was by nature a visionary. Through the window of dreams he could peer into the future. Although he could not see all the details, he could picture what life could be like. He was, however, not born wise. He had to learn how to be a sage. He needed the insight and wisdom he earned through the challenges and trials of his life.
When we encounter Joseph in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, he is no longer the obnoxious young visionary whom his brothers sold into slavery some twenty years earlier. His experiences as a slave, as a prisoner and as the highest official of the Egyptian court taught him to understand the human heart. He learned that it was necessary to let go of the burden of the past to be able to receive the promise of the future.
The dramatic highlight of the story of Joseph is the moment when Joseph steps out of his role as the grand vizier of Egypt and reveals himself to the eleven hungry brothers from Canaan as their long-lost brother Joseph, the very one whom they sold into slavery over two decades earlier (Genesis 45:1-3). His brothers are dumfounded at the news and are unable to respond.
We can only imagine what they felt: shock, fear, surprise, awe, relief. Biblical narratives avoid description. However, Joseph immediately puts aside whatever turmoil they may have felt in their souls by explaining that all that happened was part of God’s plan. “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me” he tells them. “It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (45:5). “Do not be overwhelmed with guilt,” he tells them, “I had to leave Canaan so that my potential could be realized, and, now, because of all that happened, I am in the position to save your lives, the lives of your loved ones and the lives of many other people.”
Years before, Joseph the prophet angered his brothers by arrogantly revealing a future in which their role seemed subservient and incidental. Now, Joseph the sage comforts his brothers by helping them re-frame their past in such a way that their actions, as flawed as they were, were crucial in creating a situation in which they could help each other.
What a relief this must have been for his brothers. The burden of guilt that arose from their mistreatment of Joseph was reflected in their concern for their youngest brother, Benjamin, and their worry for their father, Jacob (Gen. 44). Joseph permitted them to transcend their past and join him in building a future for themselves and their families with the brother they previously despised and feared.
As a young man, Joseph the prophet sensed that he would rule over his brothers but could see the vision only through his own eyes (37:5-11). As a mature man, Joseph the sage understood what it meant to be his brothers’ leader and retold their story in such a way that it reflected the power of God and not the forces of anger and jealousy working in their lives.
We are far more like Joseph’s brothers than Joseph. We have little time to dream or to reflect. Even in good times we are overloaded with work. We can be so caught up in the demands of daily life that the dreamer’s visions can seem to threaten our tenuous hold on life’s steering wheel. We often make decisions based on passion rather than vision and sadly regret some of our choices. The overwhelming demands of the present and the errors and disappointments of our past cloud our vision of a better future. Like Joseph’s brothers, we, too, are often unable to recognize who or what is standing before us.
Like them, we need prophets and sages. We need prophets to point our way to the future. We need sages to help us appreciate our past. Like them, we need Joseph.