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Joseph, Part 1

This week's parasha, Vayeshev, begins the Joseph saga. This amazing story comprises a full four Torah portions -- more than the stories of any of the prior patriarchs or matriarchs. This seems strange at first because Joseph is not even considered a patriarch in our tradition. He is merely the favorite son of our namesake Jacob/Israel who behaves in this parasha like a spoiled brat, telling on his brothers and then informing them of his dreams that he will someday rule over them and who often flaunts his special relationship with his father.

Of course, Jacob is not innocent in this, as he clearly shows favoritism to Joseph by giving him the famous coat of many colors. After all that happened to Jacob due to the favoritism showed to him by his mother and the rivalry that he experienced with his brother Esau one has to wonder how he could let the same thing happen to his son Joseph. It never ceases to amaze how familial patterns of deception continue from generation to generation, not only in the Torah, but in "real life" as well.

Commentators throughout the ages have criticized Joseph for the way he behaved towards his brothers. Yet Elie Wiesel has sympathy for Joseph. He states that Jacob's other sons should have shown compassion for their younger brother who lost his beloved mother while she was giving birth to his brother Benjamin. Instead, they treated him as an outsider, and so he used his father's natural favoritism (based on the fact that his was Jacob's beloved Rachel's son) to taunt his brothers. This eventually backfired and caused his brothers to decide to sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites (though at first they were going to kill him), his coat then torn and dipped in goat's blood in order to convince Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.

So how is it that this young upstart deserves four parashiot of his own? And why is it that tradition comes to refer to him as Yosef ha'tzaddik, Joseph the righteous one? As we read these four portions we will hopefully discover the answer to these questions.

However, we must remember that as we read the Joseph story it is also our story. It is the story of a favored son sold into slavery in Egypt, imprisoned due to false charges (when the wife of his master Potiphar accuses him of trying to seduce her when in fact it was she who wanted to seduce him) and then eventually being freed and being exalted to a high position and bringing his family to a place of honor as well. In many ways this foreshadows the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom.

This parasha is also the beginning of the story of that slavery. For if Joseph had not gone down to Egypt his brothers would not have ended up there and we would not have eventually become slaves.

It can also be viewed in a positive light because the Joseph story shows us how the brothers -- the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel -- grow from men ready to kill their own brothers into men ready to begin leading a new nation.

In the mind of the Torah's authors the journey into slavery that is set in motion by the events in this week's parasha is not viewed in a negative light. For it is our slavery that then allows us to be redeemed by God who then reveals the Torah to us at Sinai.

We must first descend into the depths before we can be exalted to the heights. This is a recurring theme within much of Jewish history and thought and it all begins with Jacob being cast into the pit and then sold into slavery in this week's parasha.

There are many lessons that we can learn from this parasha and the remainder of the Joseph story, for it is not only a microcosm of the Jewish journey, but it is representative of the journey that we all must take if we are to become free human beings.

I urge you all to read the parashiot and to follow along as we see what we can learn from Joseph and his family as we read these last parashiot in Bereshit (Genesis) in preparation for the beginning of our saga as a nation in Shemot (Exodus).
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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