“The Two Sides of Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There are few characters in world literature who are as dynamic, charismatic, successful and as enigmatic as the patriarch Joseph.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, Joseph, the beloved son of Rachel and Jacob, takes center stage–a stage of stark contrasts. Joseph starts out as the favored son, and winds up as the hated brother. He is left by his brothers to die in the pit, and soon after becomes a most successful estate manager in Egypt. Accused of trying to rape his master’s wife and left to rot in a prison dungeon, his life once again turns around, and he is appointed viceroy over all of Egypt and principal master of the country’s economy.

The roller coaster biography of Joseph is not at all coincidental. The two sides of Joseph’s life begin at the time of his birth, an event at which there were expressions of great depression and great euphoria. When Rachel finally gives birth to a son, she says (Genesis 30:23): “Ah’saf Eh’lo’kim et cher’pah’tee,” the Al-mighty has taken away my disgrace. But lest the young lad be known throughout his life as the child of a once-disgraced mother, Rachel has the good sense to proffer a second meaning to the child’s name. She calls him “Yosef,” Joseph, saying (Genesis 30:24) “Yosef Hashem lee bayn ah’chayr,” May the Al-mighty add on for me another son.

As Joseph gasps his first breath of air, the duality of his life destiny is already apparent. Is this the hated child or the beloved child? Is this to be a child whose very essence recalls previous disgrace, or is this the child who will father a host of powerful tribes that descend from Rachel? Is this the child destined to be immensely successful, or the one who is repeatedly cast into the pit, constantly facing extinction?

Perhaps the most precise depiction of Joseph can be found in the appellation “Baal ha’Chalomot”--Master of Dreams–that was given to him by his brothers, who so totally detest him that they are prepared to kill him.

Joseph, “the lad” (Genesis, 37:2), who struggles to become a mature and insightful person, is totally unaware of the fact that his dreams and his behavior have resulted in his brothers utter contempt for him. Father Jacob, in his seeming naivete, sends beloved Joseph to inquire about the welfare of his brothers, who are now tending the flocks in Shechem. It is difficult to believe that both Jacob and Joseph are so out-of-touch with reality and so thoroughly unaware of the deep feelings of resentment that the brothers harbor for Joseph. After all, the brothers have as much as publicly announced their hatred for Joseph and their jealousy is in the open for all to see.

It is certainly not because they loved the tranquil and friendly home environment that existed in the Vale of Chevron, in the house if Jacob, that the brothers decided to tend the flocks so far away in Shechem. Most likely they hated their home. They resented the blatant favoritism that resulted in intolerable tension and stress, and particularly loathed the obnoxious 17-year-old boy who walked around with his coat of many colors that was a gift to him from his out-of-touch father. And so the brothers decide to “escape” to Shechem, and to travel to the place where their sister Dinah had been raped, and where they took vengeance upon the perpetrators. Shechem was the one place on earth where the brothers felt united as a family and proud of their actions, no matter how violent they were in defense of their sister.

It is almost impossible to believe that Joseph was unaware of the extreme and passionate feelings that his brothers had towards him. And, nevertheless, when his father asks that he go to check on his brothers’ welfare he says, (Genesis 37:13): “Hee’nay’nee,” Here I am, ready to go.

But Shechem was not far enough for the brothers, and they soon left that location to travel even further away from home, to Dotan. Now that they have departed to Dotan, there is a greater chance of finding a snowball in hell than of anyone finding the sons of Jacob. But “serendipitously” Joseph meets the one individual in the world who had sighted the brothers and had overheard them saying that they were leaving to Dotan, where Joseph finds them.

Beholding Joseph from afar, the brothers conspire to kill him, and say to one another (Genesis 37:19): “Hee’nay ba’al ha’chah’lo’mot ha’lah’zeh bah,” Behold the dreamer is coming! (Genesis 37:20): “V’ah’tah l’choo v’nah’har’gay’hoo…” and now come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ then we shall see what will become of his dreams!

Were the brothers aware of what they were saying when they called Joseph “Ba’al ha’Cha’lomot,” Master of Dreams? Could they have realized how accurately they had portrayed their sibling in this modest, but oh so powerful, two-word phrase, “Baal hah’Cha’lo’mot,” Master of Dreams. After all, how did Joseph become a Master of Dreams?

Could it be that Joseph gained this mastery at birth, a mastery that is reflected in the two names that he was given at that time?

Rachel, Joseph’s mother, bears an intense embarrassment because of her barrenness. It is a public shame that she has endured for many years. While the newborn Joseph removes his mother’s shame, he now carries within his internal makeup the legacy of his mother’s frustration, and the searing pain that she suffered during her many years of childlessness. Joseph, therefore, knows almost intuitively what it meant for his mother to be denigrated. How many dreams did Rachel have about bearing a child during her years of barrenness? Dreams, of course, are often expressions of frustration.

Because his very name bore a remembrance of that painful era, the young lad Joseph surely grew up thinking about and internalizing the stigma of his mother’s suffering. Not knowing how to handle the stigma, Joseph reacts like an immature child by dreaming, and informing his brothers through his dreams that he, the child of the woman of stigma, is much better than they. The dreams are Joseph’s way of striking back at their spoken and unspoken sarcasm.

Dreams, of course, also represent desire, and reflect a prayer for future success. In his case, Joseph’s dreams and fantasies are dramatically eclipsed by reality. Joseph’s transformation from slave-boy to viceroy is far more dramatic than even the image of the sun, the moon and the stars bowing down to him.

Joseph has fulfilled both missions ascribed to him by his mother. By the end of his story, through his brilliant interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, he has removed the indignities of barrenness, brought two major tribes into the Jewish people, and has risen to become among the highest ranking civil authorities in the world.

“Joseph”–two names, two destinies, melded into one extraordinary life.

Chanukah Sameyach! Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.