“The Coming of Age of Joseph: from Lad to Bechor

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we learn of the family of Jacob and of the terrible strife within the family.

Virtually all of Jacob’s life can be summarized by the following characterization: Jacob’s life revolves around love, and lack of love. He was loved by his mother, but apparently not loved by his father. He loved Rachel, but loved Leah less. And despite the fact that Jacob’s own life was traumatized by being favored and not favored himself, Jacob could not break that destructive family pattern, as scripture tells us in Genesis 37:3, “V’Yisrael ahav et Yosef me’kol banav,” And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons. The fact that scripture specifically uses the name “Israel” is indicative that this special favoring of Joseph is not only personal, but actually impacts on the destiny of the Jewish people. It is specifically because Jacob favors Joseph that the Jewish people eventually wind up in Egypt.

Whenever the Torah introduces a new character or personality, the Torah’s initial description often reveals the core or inner workings of that person and usually indicates what the future bodes for him or her. The Torah says in Genesis 37:2, ” Ayleh toldot Yaakov .” These are the generations, the descendants, of Jacob. We would expect the Torah to list all twelve sons, but instead the Torah lists only one: ” Yosef ben sh’va esray shana, haya roeh et echav ba’tzon, v’hu na’ar et b’nai Bilha v’et b’nai Zilpa, n’shay aviv.” Joseph, being 17 years old, was a shepherd with his brothers with the flocks. And he was a lad, together with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa, the wives of his father.

There seems to be much redundancy in this description of Joseph. He is 17, and is a lad. Either one of these descriptions would have sufficed. Why both? The fact that it says that he is a lad, says Rashi, indicates that Joseph was preoccupied with immature acts: He would fix his hair constantly, groom his eyes, so that he would look more attractive.

This characterization of Joseph is undoubtedly a key insight into the future of this “rising star.” Joseph seems to have many traits of a typical swell-headed teenager. The fact that he wears a coat of many colors does not at all disturb him, even though it sets him apart from his brothers and causes much envy. He always speaks his mind, whether it hurts others or not. He is a dreamer, and nothing, not even hatred, can stop him from relating these dreams.

In his first dream Joseph tells his brothers about binding sheaves in the field, how his sheaf rises and remains standing while the other sheaves bow down to his sheaf. The brothers respond with resentment and ask him, (Genesis 37:8) “Ha’maloch tim’loch aleinu? ” Do you intend to reign over us? “Im ma’shol, tim’shol ba’nu ?” Do you expect to dominate us? And the brothers, who resent Joseph already because his father favored him, hate him more because of the dreams, and significantly more because he was callous enough to relate these hurtful dreams. At least keep them to yourself! Not Joseph! And when he dreams an additional dream, despite the previous resentment, he doesn’t hesitate to relate the new dream as well. This time the sun, the moon, and eleven stars are all bowing down to him. There is no longer any symbolic imagery, they bow down to him, not his sheaf. Typical teenager, Joseph just can’t keep his big mouth shut!

Joseph feels absolutely invincible. He can drive his hot rod well beyond the speed limit, and not be fearful for his life, and that is exactly what Joseph does. Despite the resentfulness, jealousy and hatred of his brothers, Joseph doesn’t hesitate to go when he is asked to travel to Dotan to inquire after his brothers’ well being. Of course, as soon as they see him from afar, they conspire to murder him. Joseph seems entirely imperious, and totally indifferent, to the feelings of others.

Even after Joseph is seized by his brothers, thrown into the pit and left to die, and eventually sold by the Midianites to be a slave in Egypt to Potifar, Joseph emerges with his self-confidence totally intact. Joseph becomes enormously successful in Potifar’s home, the blessing of G-d is in everything he does and touches in the house and in the field (Genesis 38:5).

After the trauma of being sold as a slave, has Joseph matured? Scripture (Genesis 39:6) provides us with a subtle hint. The Torah tells us that Potifar leaves all that he has in Joseph’s custody and grants him total authority. Then all of a sudden the verse concludes, ” Vay’hee Yosef y’fay to’ar vee’fay mar’eh,” now Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance. What in the world does this have to do with authority? Says Rashi, “Joseph was handsome of form: Once Joseph saw himself in a position of authority, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘Your father is mourning, and you curl your hair? I will provoke the bear against you!'” Immediately thereupon, his master’s wife cast her eyes on him. Mrs. Potifar accuses Joseph of attempted rape, and Joseph is thrown into prison. When will Joseph learn? When will he show some humility? When will he finally grow up?

Even in prison, Joseph succeeds beyond expectations and is placed in charge of all the prisoners, including the Royal butler and the baker, whose dreams he interprets. This success eventually gives Joseph the opening to appear before Pharaoh and interpret Pharaoh’s dream. But, instead of putting his full faith in G-d, Joseph asks the butler to remember him to Pharaoh. As a result, Joseph must spend an additional two years in prison before he is called by Pharaoh.

Only when Joseph begins to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams does Joseph begin to show some signs of maturity. ” Bil’adai, Elokhim ya’aneh et sh’lom Phar’oh ” I cannot interpret the dreams, says Joseph, it is G-d who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare. And yet, soon after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph again displays his pugnacity, by suggesting to the Pharaoh that the solution to the famine would be to appoint a person over Egypt, who would collect all of the food in storehouses. You can’t keep a good man down, nor can you keep him from expressing his views.

So now the teenage kid who was wronged by his brothers, is the “number two” man in all of Egypt and has a chance to get back at them, to finally get even. The brothers come down to Egypt. He accuses them of being spies. He keeps Shimon in prison, as the other brothers leave to bring food back to their families. He throws his brothers off balance by taking their money, and secretly putting the money back in their bags. He seems to be enjoying playing games with them, torturing them every chance he gets.

When he feels that he has tested them sufficiently, when he sees that they are contrite and prepared to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their brother Benjamin, when he sees that they would not repeat the error of selling their brother down the river, as they did with him–and this, despite the fact that they have good reason to believe that Benjamin is a thief and a nogoodnik just like his brother Joseph, and only then does Joseph reveal himself.

Eventually Jacob and the entire family come down to Egypt. Although the reunion of Jacob and his beloved son Joseph is extraordinarily moving, scripture seems to indicate a distance between Joseph, his father, and his brothers. Is there ever a full reconciliation? Does Joseph every forgive his brothers, or his father for that matter? The Torah seems to hint of strained relations.

After Jacob dies and is buried in Israel, the brothers return to Egypt. The Torah tells us in Genesis 50:15 that the brothers were concerned that now that their father was dead, Joseph would be vengeful and would surely repay them for the terrible evil they did to him. So the brothers lie, to protect themselves, and tell Joseph that before his death, Jacob, their father, said to tell Joseph to forgive the spiteful deed of his brothers, and their sin. Joseph cries when he hears this. The brothers cry as well, fling themselves before him, and say that they are prepared to be his slaves. Perhaps it is at this very moment that Joseph finally is transformed from being a lad. Finally, Joseph overcomes a lifetime of resentment, and says to his brothers (Genesis 50:19), Fear not, “Ha’tachat Elokhim ani.” Am I in place of G-d? While you intended harm, G-d indeed intended it for good.

These three words, “Ha’tachat Elokhim ani,” are critical words to Joseph. “Am I in place of G-d?” These exact words were uttered once before, by Joseph’s father, Jacob, under extraordinary circumstances. Rachel was barren. Her sister Leah has already given birth to four sons, and with great pain and anguish Rachel approaches Jacob and says to him, (Genesis 30:1) ” Yaakov, Ha’va lee banim, v’im ayin, may’ta anochi.” Jacob, give me children, otherwise I shall die. In anger Jacob responds to Rachel, “Ha’tachat Elokhim a’nochi?” Am I instead of G-d? ” Asher mana mee’maych pree vaten,” Who has withheld from you children! I am fertile, says Jacob callously. You are barren! It is your problem!

Joseph uses the same words that Jacob used so cruelly with his desperate mother, and says to his brothers, “Ha’tachat Elokhim ani?” Am I in place of G-d? Despite your evil intentions, everything turned out for the good. I will sustain you and your children. He then proceeds to comfort them. “Va’yee’nachem otam, vay’da’ber al leebam.” He comforted them and spoke to their hearts. Joseph is no longer a lad. He is no longer 17 years old. Joseph has risen to great heights. He is far above jealousy and vindictiveness. He has become a person of compassion and forgiveness, and is no longer the self-centered teenager who sees the world only through his own eyes. Joseph now emerges as the bechor, the first born, and the rightful heir of Israel.

May you be blessed.