The Transcendent Ecology of Purpose

In David Blight’s stunning and brilliant new biography of Frederick Douglass, the historian describes a moment early in Douglass’ writings where the orator and freedom fighter articulates his “existential core” as a man: “I have often wished myself a beast,” Douglass wrote in 1845. “I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had aroused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

What remarkable eloquence and inspiration! What resilience! If you have ever read Douglass, you know his story. Born into slavery but as you can see from the above passage, incisively and deeply aware of his own gifts of humanity. Douglass was in possession of an exceptional personality that calls to mind George Mosse, a Berlin Jewish refugee who became one of the most important European historians of the twentieth century. As once told to me by George’s partner John Tortorice: “His life was a triumph.”

Yes. Frederick Douglass lived a life of triumph. He transcended the insidious and racist efforts to enslave and dehumanize his essence as a person, as a boy who would be a man, as a Black man, as an American; and in so doing he became not merely a “leader” or an “abolitionist,” but an eloquent exemplar of the universal striving to be human.

The sage Hillel said in Pirke Avot, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be one.” If consciousness and our thumbs separate us from animals, and there is something truly remarkable about what it means to be human, it’s worth pausing for a moment and noting what those characteristics may really be. Andrew Buskell, who teaches philosophy at the London School of Economics, argues that there are three basic areas of development in which the human clearly differs from animals, based on the notion that humans live within “cumulative cultures” of our own making. We exist within a structure of ever-increasing complexity and adapt accordingly; we are, therefore, always innovating in order to continue addressing the growing complexities of life; and as a result, we must always keep adapting, growing, changing, and evolving, with this keen awareness of our humanity.

There is a dangerous hubris that lies beneath the surface. The Biblical Joseph knew it well. He begins his life seeking the mantle of leadership, dreaming great visions, the second youngest among a band of brothers who, with an unrestrained ego, accords himself loudly a prophetic vision of unvanquishable singularity. How annoying he must have been. “Here comes Joe, blah, blah, blah,” one imagines his brothers saying, sending each other texts with eye-roll emojis. And then the coat! He got the coat! Dad’s coat! I’ll be honest: I’d have tossed him down into the pit as well.

Here is FD, crouched beneath a kitchen table, watching in horror as a master beats a slave, knowing from the earliest age that the slave and the master need each other if one is to be defined as slave and one is to be defined as master. And yet, the child Douglass knows that his mind, his humanity, his adaptiveness, is the “silver trump of freedom” that will bring his own and his people’s liberation. Joseph was a bit slower on the uptake but we can safely surmise that it’s because he had yet to suffer. He was born a dreamer and rewarded for it. He didn’t have to earn it. It took family strife, jealousy, rivalry, violence, a conniving deception of the father Jacob, a faked death, an accusation of attempted rape, jail-time, and finally a real and symbolic famine, to bring the family back together.

In last week’s parashah, Va’Yigash, Joseph reconciles with his brothers who had sold him into slavery by recognizing his own elevated understanding of the suffering the brothers caused. “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:4). No longer the crazed dreamer of his youth, his egoistic effulgence blinding his brothers, Joseph has been raised up by being brought low. He has turned his suffering into wisdom. Instead of breaking him, it made him. Though the brothers likely hated to admit it, in the end Joseph was triumphant. But not merely of his own accord, but because he could see that in suffering there was purpose, a searing focus and a direction to his existence.

In this week’s parashah, Va’Yehi, Jacob draws his last breath and is “gathered to his kin,” the Torah’s way of describing where we go when we die. And as promised, Joseph delivers his father’s body back up to the family burial plots in Hebron before returning (returning!) to Egypt, where he himself will die. Then, as the brothers approach, fearing that with their father Jacob now dead, Joseph will finally carry out his revenge, a powerful moment plays out. They throw themselves at Joseph’s feet, and say, “We are prepared to be your slaves!” But Joseph says to them, “Have no fear. Am I substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people.”

Here we see the magnanimity of Joseph. He transcends himself because he understands his agency in the world, we might say. Or, to put it more colloquially, we might say, “It’s never really about us but something greater than us.”

This is Joseph transcending the ecology of his family dynamic and finding his “true north.” And it is Frederick Douglass understanding that the master is as much a slave as the man, woman or child subjugated to a radically inhumane ecology of American bondage.

We have purpose as Jews. We have purpose as humans. Joseph teaches us to see that in our pain there is hope; in our suffering there is light. And what makes the human project so compelling is that we have it in us to keep moving forward toward a better, more peaceful and just world.