“A Personality Profile of Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we encounter the twelve tribes of Israel in their early stages of development, as they begin the process of emerging as a nation. The essential role played by Joseph comes clearly into focus.

The tragic death of Rachel while giving birth to Benjamin has already been recorded (Genesis 35:18). Rachel’s passing obviously affects the entire family, but impacts most deeply on Jacob, the bereaved husband, and Joseph, the orphaned child.

We soon learn that the brothers hate Joseph so deeply that they are unable to speak peaceably to him (Genesis 37:4). The brothers’ hatred of Joseph is compounded by much jealousy (Genesis 37:11), and the brothers soon decide that in order to maintain their “sanity” they must part ways from both Joseph and their father Jacob. They, therefore, set out to graze their flocks in Shechem, a significant distance from their patriarchal homestead.

Despite the extensive detail in the Torah, it is still unclear why Joseph is hated. Scripture tells us, (Genesis 37:3): “V’Yisrael ah’hav et Yosef, mee’kol bah’nav, kee ven z’koo’nim hoo lo,” Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a child of his old age. This is hardly true! Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother, was born six years after Joseph and is the youngest of all. “Old age” here seems to be a euphemism alluding to the fact that Jacob was already well on in years when Joseph finally emerged from the womb of Jacob’s beloved barren wife, Rachel.

Jacob does not at all hide his favoritism of Joseph from his family and proceeds to dress his beloved Joseph in a kutonet pasim, a coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3). That, however, is not the only reason why Joseph is hated. Although Joseph was a shepherd together with his brothers, he was never really one of the boys. In fact, Genesis 37:2 informs us: “Va’yah’vay Yosef et dee’bah’tam rah’ah el ah’vee’hem,” Joseph would bring evil reports about his brothers to their father.

A third reason for the brothers’ resentment of Joseph is recorded in the Torah (Genesis 37:5): “Va’ya’cha’lom Yosef cha’lom, va’ya’gayd l’eh’chav.” Joseph dreamed a dream that he told to his brothers, which caused the brothers to hate Joseph even more. Even after he saw how upset his brothers were, Joseph did not shrink from sharing a second dream with them. Joseph’s dreams, symbolizing his future domination over his brethren and the other members of his family, resulted in the virtual unanimous desire of his brothers to kill him.

Despite the disadvantages of being an orphan, a hated brother and a domineering dreamer, Joseph is extraordinarily gifted in so many ways. Perhaps because of the early loss of his mother, and having been alone without a brother/companion for so long, Joseph learns to fend for himself, compensating for his aloneness. He shows no fear or consternation when he audaciously relates his dreams to his brothers.

Although we do learn later that when Joseph was thrown into the pit he cries bitterly (Genesis 42:21), Joseph soon recovers when he arrives in Egypt to serve as a slave in the house of Potiphar. Now that he’s on his own, distanced from his father and family, Joseph’s great talents begin to reveal themselves. In short order, he becomes the manager of his master’s estate. He is a gifted administrator and economist, and is handsome and comely to boot. And even after he is accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife and is thrown into prison, he soon rises to become head of the prisoners.

Despite the constant adversity and apparent hopelessness faced by Joseph, all he seems to need is a brief opportunity to display his true talents. That opportunity comes rather quickly when Joseph deciphers the troubling dreams of Pharaoh.

Once Joseph appears before Pharaoh, he is no longer the lad, the sad orphan, and the weak and resented brother. He emerges from Pharaoh’s palace as a would-be national hero, to eventually become the savior of all the land of Egypt. Joseph displays prodigious talents in many spheres, as a statesman, an economist, a psychoanalyst, and an administrator. Thirteen years earlier he was abandoned in a pit in Dotan, and now he is the second most powerful person in Egypt. In all of Egypt, no man may lift a hand or foot without Joseph’s permission (Genesis 41:44).

While Joseph parades around in regal linen clothes, sporting a gold necklace and riding in the royal chariot, back home in Canaan, his brothers are engaged in rather menial labor, shepherding Jacob’s flock.

The all-powerful Joseph shows no signs of regret or homesickness. Not once does he make an effort to contact his poor grieving father who is back in Canaan, and not because he has no time. It’s more likely due to the fact that Joseph is simply determined to obliterate that part of his past. This sentiment is pointedly confirmed by the fact that Joseph names his firstborn son, “Menashe”–“For the Lord has made me forget all my toil and all my travail in the house of my father” (Genesis 41:51).

There is, however, one aspect of Joseph that ultimately keeps him connected to family and to nation–his faith in G-d. The name of G-d is constantly on Joseph’s lips–while he is Potiphar’s house, while he is in prison, and even in the royal Egyptian palace as Joseph deciphers Pharaoh’s dreams. It is his abiding faith in G-d that ultimately makes it possible for Joseph to reunite with his brothers and forgive them. Listen to Joseph’s words as he reveals himself to his fright-paralyzed brothers (Genesis 45:5): “And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you.”

This powerful feeling that Divine destiny guides Joseph’s life is reiterated once again at the end of the Book of Genesis. After Jacob’s passing, the brothers are fearful that now with their father gone, Joseph will avenge their treacherous actions. (Genesis 50:19) “Va’yomer ah’lay’hem Yosef, al tee’rah’ooh, kee ha’tah’chat Eh’loh’kim ah’nee.” Joseph says to his brothers, “Fear not, for am I instead of G-d? Although you intended to harm me, G-d intended it for good in order to accomplish great things.” It is, once again, Joseph’s connection to G-d that brings him back to his family and back to his people.

The final confirmation of total reconciliation with his people is that Joseph asks that his bones be taken out of Egypt when the children of Israel leave that land, and that he be buried with his people in the land of Canaan, the land of his people.

There are few personalities in all of world literature whose lives are as rich, as complex, as fascinating and as inspiring as the life of Joseph.

May you be blessed.