“The Two Sides of Joseph”
(updated and revised from Vayeishev 5764-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There are few characters in world literature who are as gifted, dynamic, charismatic, successful and as enigmatic as the first-born son of Rachel and Jacob, Joseph.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, Joseph, the beloved son of Rachel and Jacob, takes center stage—and is a study of stark contrasts. Joseph, who starts out as the greatly favored son, winds up as the hated brother. He is left by his brothers to die in a 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 world’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. After many years of barrenness and tears, Rachel finally gives birth to a son. In her joy, Rachel declares, (Genesis 30:23): אָסַף אֱ־לֹקִים אֶת חֶרְפָּתִי, “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 יוֹסֵף “Yosef,” Joseph, saying, (Genesis 30:24), יֹסֵף השׁם לִי בֵּן אַחֵר, “May the Al-mighty add on for me another son.”

As Joseph breathes his first breath, 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 pair of powerful tribes who 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, (Genesis 37:19), בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹתBa’al haChalomot, 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 seemingly stunning naivete, sends his beloved Joseph to inquire about the welfare of his brothers, who are now tending the flocks in Shechem. It is difficult to imagine that both Jacob and Joseph do not realize the danger of sending Joseph to his brothers, and are so out-of-touch with reality that they are 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, (Genesis 37:4), 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 of Jacob, that the brothers decided to tend the flocks so far away in Shechem. Most likely, they hated what was happening at home. They clearly 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 very 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 violent actions in defense of their sibling. It was also a perfect place for them to plot more violence against their hated brother.

It is impossible to believe that Joseph was unaware of the extreme and passionate negative feelings that his brothers had toward him. And yet, when his father asks that he go to check on his brothers’ welfare, he says, (Genesis 37:13): הִנֵּנִי, “Hineni,” “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 a place called 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 in Shechem and had overheard them saying that they were leaving to Dotan, where Joseph finds them.

Seeing Joseph approaching from afar, the brothers conspire to kill him, saying to one another (Genesis 37:19): הִנֵּה בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה בָּא, “Behold the dreamer is coming!” (Genesis 37:20): עַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ … “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 בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת, Master of Dreams? Did they understand how accurately they had portrayed their sibling with this modest, but oh so powerful, two-word phrase, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת, 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, harbors an intense embarrassment due to 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 yearning for a child. Joseph therefore knows almost intuitively what it meant for his mother to be denigrated. How many times did Rachel dream 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 Joseph surely grew up thinking about, and probably 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 denigrated woman, and the subject of searing stigma, is much better than they. The dreams are Joseph’s way of striking back at their spoken and unspoken thoughtlessness and 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 fulfills both missions ascribed to him when his mother named him. By the end of his amazing saga, through his brilliant interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, he has wiped away the indignities of barrenness, has added two major tribes to 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.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 18, 2022 and continues through Monday afternoon, December 26, 2022.

Wishing all a Happy Chanukah!