“The Coming of Age of Joseph: from Lad to Bechor
(edited and revised from Vayeishev 5760-2000)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

To a great extent, virtually all of Jacob’s life can be encapsulated by the following statement: Jacob’s life revolves around love and lack of love. He was loved by his mother, but apparently not particularly loved by his father. He loved Rachel, but loved Leah less. And despite the fact that Jacob’s own life was traumatized by his father favoring his brother, Jacob could not break that destructive family pattern. As scripture informs us in Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו , 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 entire destiny of the Jewish people. After all, it is specifically because Jacob favors Joseph, that the Jewish people eventually wind up in Egypt.

A general rule of Torah study is that 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 often indicates what the future bodes for that person. The Torah states in Genesis 37:2, אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב , these are the generations, the descendants, of Jacob. We would expect the Torah to proceed to list all twelve sons, but instead the Torah lists only one: יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה, הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו . Joseph being 17 years old, was a shepherd with his brothers with the flocks. And he was a lad, together with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, 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 Joseph is a lad, says Rashi , indicates that Joseph was preoccupied with immature acts: He would fix his hair constantly and 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 self-centered teenager. The fact that he wears a coat of many colors given to him by his father, does not seem at all to bother him, even though it sets him apart from his brothers and results in 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 to others.

In his first dream, Joseph tells his brothers about binding sheaves in the field, and 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), הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ “Do you intend to reign over us?” אִם מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ Do you expect to dominate us?” And the brothers, who resent Joseph already because he was their father’s favorite, resent him even 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 Joseph 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 to his sheaf. Typical self-centered teenager, Joseph just can’t keep his big mouth shut!

Joseph feels absolutely invincible. He can drive his “hot rod” well above the speed limit, and not be afraid. 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. Given the brothers feelings toward Joseph, as soon as they see him from afar, they conspire to murder him. Joseph’s behavior is imperious, and entirely 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, an officer in Pharaoh’s retinue, Joseph emerges with his self-confidence intact. Joseph becomes enormously successful in Potifar’s home, since the blessing of G-d (Genesis 39:2), is in everything he does and touches, in the house and in the field.

After the trauma of being sold as a slave, has Joseph matured? Scripture (Genesis 39:6), drops a subtle hint. The Torah tells us that his master, Potifar, leaves all that he has in Joseph’s custody and grants him total authority. Then all of a sudden, the verse concludes, וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה , now Joseph was handsome of form and of comely 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 [over you], 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 soon 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 himself and interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. But, instead of putting his full faith in G-d, Joseph asks the butler to remember him to Pharaoh, to help him gain release. As a result, Joseph must spend an additional two years in prison before he is summoned to Pharaoh.

Only when Joseph begins to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams does Joseph begin to show some signs of maturity (Genesis 41:16). בִּלְעָדָי, אֱ־לֹקִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה , “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 arrogance, by suggesting to Pharaoh that the solution to the famine would be to appoint a person over Egypt who would collect all of the food in storehouses. As we see, you can’t keep a good man down, nor can you keep him from expressing his personal views.

So now the teenage kid who was wronged by his brothers, is the “number two” man in all of Egypt, and is in a really good position to get back at them, and to finally get even. The brothers come down to Egypt. He accuses them of being spies. He keeps Simeon in prison, as the other brothers return home to bring food back to their families. In addition, 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.

Joseph waits to reveal himself until he feels that he has tested his brothers sufficiently. He first wanted to be certain that they are truly contrite and prepared to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their brother, Benjamin. When he sees that they would not repeat the error of ever selling their brother “up 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 older brother, Joseph, only then, does he 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 ever forgive his brothers, or his father for that matter? The Torah seems to hint of strained relations.

After Jacob passes on and is buried in Canaan, the brothers return to Egypt. The Torah, in Genesis 50:15, informs us that the brothers were concerned that now that their father, Jacob, was dead, Joseph would be vengeful and would surely repay them for the terrible evil they had done to him. To protect themselves, the brothers lie, and tell Joseph that before his death, Jacob, their father, had 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 announce that they are fully prepared to serve forever as Joseph’s slaves. Perhaps it is at this very moment that Joseph is transformed into a grown-up. Finally, Joseph overcomes a lifetime of resentment, and says to his brothers (Genesis 50:19), “Fear not,” הֲתַחַת אֱ־לֹקִים אָנִי“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 in the Joseph narrative. “Am I in place of G-d?” These exact words were uttered once before, by Joseph’s father, Jacob, under extraordinary painful circumstances. Rachel was barren. Her sister Leah had already given birth to four sons, and with great pain and anguish Rachel approaches her husband, Jacob, and says to him, (Genesis 30:1) יַעֲקֹב, הָבָה לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי . “Jacob, give me children, otherwise I shall die.” Jacob responds to Rachel in anger, הֲתַחַת אֱ־לֹקִים אָנֹכִי Am I instead of G-d?” אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן , “Who has withheld from you children! I am fertile,” says Jacob callously. “You are barren! It is your problem!”

Joseph uses the very same words that Jacob used so cruelly in response to Joseph’s desperate mother, Rachel and says to his brothers, “Ha’tachat Elokhim ani?” “Am I in place of G-d? Despite your evil intentions, and your attempts to harm me, everything turned out for the good. I will sustain you and your children.”

Joseph then proceeds to comfort his brothers and speak to their hearts. וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם, וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם . From this point on Joseph is no longer a lad. Finally, he is no longer 17 years old. Joseph has risen to great heights. He has risen far above jealousy and vindictiveness. He has become a person of compassion and forgiveness, and is no longer the self-centered egotistic and obnoxious teenager who sees the world only through his own eyes.

Joseph now emerges as the bechor, the firstborn, and the rightful heir of Israel.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 22nd, 2019 and continues through Sunday night, December 29, 2019.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.