Rabbi Lewis Eron for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Prophets and Sages
The difference between a prophet and a sage is where they discover 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, Va-Yigash, 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.