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Torah Sparks

December 4, 2004 - 21 Kislev 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 37:1-37:36 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 - 3:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 247; Hertz p. 152)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Jacob shows marked favoritism toward his beloved son Joseph, provoking the bitter resentment and envy of his brothers. Their hate for Joseph is compounded by his habit of reporting unfavorably on their behavior to their father. Jacob presents Joseph with a "coat of many colors" (sometimes translated as "ornamented" or "ankle-length" tunic). Joseph describes his dreams to his brothers: their sheaves of grain bowing to his; the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing to him. The brothers' disdain for their privileged and ambitious brother is further inflamed.

Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, who are pasturing flocks at Shechem. Upon Joseph's approach, the resentful brothers conspire to kill him, but at Reuben's behest they modify their plan, agreeing to throw him into a pit. Reuben intends to return to the pit in order to rescue Joseph. Before he can effect Joseph's safe escape, however, the brothers further modify their conspiracy. They sell Joseph to a caravan of traders, variously identified as Ishmaelites and Midianites. The traders subsequently sell Joseph into Egyptian slavery. To conceal their crime, the brothers dip the tunic, the very symbol of Joseph's favored status, in animal blood, and show it to Jacob as "evidence" of his beloved son's "demise." Jacob mourns Joseph's violent death: "A savage beast has devoured him!"

In Egypt, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh's chief steward. The Joseph narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah's son, Er, dies after displeasing God through an unspecified offense. Judah instructs a second son, Onan, to effect a levirate marriage with his widowed sister-in-law Tamar. Under this arrangement, Onan's children by Tamar would be counted as Er's offspring. Onan impedes conception of an heir to his brother, giving rise to the term "onanism." Onan also dies for his sin. Judah procrastinates effecting a levirate union between Tamar and his youngest son, Shelah, fearing for his life.

Some time later, Judah is widowed. He travels to Timnah, where Tamar contrives to meet him. Disguised as a prostitute, and veiled so as effectively to conceal her identity, Tamar arranges a liaison with her father-in-law Judah - who does not recognize her. He leaves a staff and signet with her as promise of payment. Tamar, still incognito, disappears with Judah's "collateral" before payment is made. Tamar conceives twins through her union with Judah. When her pregnancy becomes apparent, Judah assumes she has conducted an illicit affair and orders her killed. When she produces his staff and signet, he finally understands that he has been duped into effecting a levirate marriage of sorts: "She is more righteous than I!" Perez and Zerah are subsequently born of their union.

The narrative returns to Joseph in Egypt, where he rises to high position as major domo in Potiphar's household. Joseph repeatedly repels sexual advances by Potiphar's wife. She claims Joseph has assaulted her, showing a garment she seized from him as "evidence" (in a striking parallel to the false evidence used by his brothers to document his alleged death). Joseph is imprisoned by a furious Potiphar.

In prison, Joseph interprets dreams for two fellow inmates, the royal cupbearer and baker. He accurately foretells their restoration to office and execution, respectively - fates both meted out at a celebration of Pharaoh's birthday. Despite Joseph's pleas for his intervention and advocacy, the cupbearer, restored to his position, forgets Joseph's cause.

Theme #1: "Cloak and Dagger"

"Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him." (Genesis 37:3-4)

Derash: Study

  • "Israel loved Joseph above all his sons, for he was a wise child." (Targum Onkelos)
  • "This passage is paradigmatic of the People Israel's entire future. Joseph, the son loved by his father above all his brothers, was forced to leave his father and homeland in the prime of his life, and was cast into another land among a degenerate people. Every effort was expended to obliterate any trace of him. But what happened? Quite the opposite: all his experiences conspired to elevate him to the highest peak of success. He provided for the various nations during time of famine, and even his brothers themselves - who had heaped shame, pain, and suffering on Joseph - later bowed low to him. So it will be with our poor, persecuted People in the future, the anger and cruelty perpetrated against our People in the lands of our dispersion will all work toward our ascendancy and good fortune." (Chafetz Chaim)
  • "for he was the child of his old age." The explanation is a little odd, both because the fact that Joseph is the son of the beloved Rachel is unmentioned and because it is the last-born Benjamin who is the real child of Jacob's old age." (Robert Alter, Genesis)
  • "Hated: Such a violent emotion nevertheless has once before (with Lea in 29:31) led not to disaster but to the fulfillment of the divine plan." (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does Joseph's status as his father's favorite relate to the history of Jewish suffering and Anti-Semitism, to which (according to the Chafetz Chaim) his life is so analogous?
  2. What other details of Joseph's life find parallels in the historic experience of the Jewish People?
  3. The Targum's characterization of Joseph as wise seems inconsistent with his ill-advised bravado and awkward alienation of his brothers. How would his perceived wisdom or intellect have occasioned his father's favoritism? His brothers' hatred? How does this relate to the statement of the Chafetz Chaim?
  4. Fox notes that hate sometimes advances God's plan. Can hatred itself be an intrinsic part of the divine plan? Can hatred be God's will?

Theme #2: "Foreign Trade Imbalance"

"When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt." (Genesis 37:28)

Derash: Study

  • "They took him out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites, and the Midianites to the Egyptians." (Rashi)
  • Midianites are called Ishmaelites." (Ibn Ezra)
  • "While the brothers were discussing selling him to the Ishmaelites, but before the Ishmaelites arrived, Midianite merchants passed by, to whom the brothers sold him. The Midianites drew him out of the pit. While they were doing this, the Ishmaelites came along, and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites to the Medanites, and the Medanites (see verse 36 - JHP) to Pharaoh - a total of four sales." (Hizkuni)
  • "This is the one single moment when the two literary strands out of which the story is woven seem awkwardly spliced. Up to this point, no Midianites have been mentioned." (Robert Alter, Genesis)
  • "The story's ambiguity concerning the natural or human chain of events that led to Joseph's servitude in Egypt throws into bolder relief the actual 'cause' of Joseph's fate. By blurring the human factors leading to the enslavement of Joseph, the narrative sharpens our image of the divine factor in bringing it about.It is not crucial to our understanding of the story whether the brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites or the Midianites stole him. It is important, rather, to perceive that the descent of Joseph to Egypt and his subsequent rise to power there reveal divine providence in history." (Edward Greenstein)
  • "In everyday language chaos is synonymous with randomness, making people contrast it with ordered behavior, and thus think of some kind of precarious balance between opposites. But its scientific usage is quite different; there, the term masks the fact that chaotic dynamics is quite exquisitely organized." (Peter Coveney, Roger Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. According to Greenstein, confusing and conflicting narrative details shift our focus to the divine. To what other seemingly inconsistent biblical texts might this principle be applied? Compare, for example, the differing sequence of events in the Creation stories of the first and second chapters of Genesis.
  2. Does Greenstein's reading assume an artful and purposeful author? Is it consistent with Alter's "awkwardly spliced" strands of conflicting literary sources? How does Ibn Ezra's (apparently apologetic) defense of the verse's literary integrity impact on these approaches to the text?
  3. As in "the science of complexity," Genesis also describes beauty and order emerging from chaos. How is Joseph's descent into Egypt preparing the way for a new "Creation?"
  4. What is the significance of Jacob's favorite son being sold into foreign servitude by descendants of Ishmael - a son who was himself rejected and exiled to likely death to protect the interests of a younger brother?

Historical Note

On December 4, 1783, George Washington delivered his famous farewell address to his officers in downtown New York: "With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." Parshat Vayeshev, read on December 4, 2004, makes it clear that Joseph took leave of his brothers under very different circumstances! Persevering through further adversity yet to come, Joseph in time attains prosperity and happiness, glory and honor in Egypt, and "in the hearts of his countrymen."

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