Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“A Personality Profile of Joseph”
(updated and revised from Vayeishev 5764-2003)

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 their brother 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 (for a multitude of reasons, see below) 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, not only from Joseph, but from their father, Jacob, as well. They, therefore, set out to graze their flocks in Shechem, a significant distance from their patriarchal homestead in Hebron.

Despite the extensive detail in the Torah, it is not entirely clear why Joseph is so hated. Scripture states, (Genesis 37:3): וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו, כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ, 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 eight years after Joseph and is the youngest of all Jacob’s children. “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 previously barren wife, Rachel.

Jacob does not at all hide from his family his divisive favoritism for Joseph, and proceeds to dress his beloved Joseph in a כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים–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, recounts that: וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם, Joseph would bring evil reports about his brothers to their father.

A third reason for the brothers’ resentment of Joseph is prominently recorded in the Torah: (Genesis 37:5): וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם, וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו. Joseph dreamed a dream that he told his brothers, which caused the brothers to hate Joseph even more. Even after he saw how upset his siblings were from the first dream, 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 orphaned from his mother, being a hated brother and a domineering dreamer, Joseph is extraordinarily gifted in so many other 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, when the brothers are riddled with guilt, that Joseph had cried and had bitterly pleaded for his life (Genesis 42:21), Joseph soon recovers when he arrives in Egypt to serve as a slave in the house of Potiphar. Now on his own, and 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 to overcome his challenges 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 taunted 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 their father 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 painful part of his past. This sentiment is pointedly confirmed by the fact that Joseph names his first born son, “Menashe”-“For the L-rd 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’s persona that ultimately keeps him connected to his family and to his nation–his faith in G-d. The name of G-d is constantly on Joseph’s lips–whether he is in his master Potiphar’s house or 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) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף, אַל תִּירָאוּ, כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱ־לֹקִים אָנִי. 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 carried out of Egypt when the children of Israel leave that land, and that he be re-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, as inspiring and as enduring, as the life of Joseph.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah begins on Thursday night, December 7, 2023, and continues through Friday afternoon, December 15, 2023.

Wishing all a Happy Chanukah!