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Torah Sparks

December 1, 2007 – 21 Kislev 5768

Annual: 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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Jacob and his family are now settled in Canaan. The parashah begins when Joseph is 17 and his father’s favorite; his father has given him the famous “coat of many colors.” Because of his favored status and because Joseph is a tattletale, his brothers hate and envy him. Joseph’s reports of his dreams, in which his brothers bow down to him, only make matters worse. When Jacob sends Joseph to find out how his brothers and the family’s flocks are getting along, the brothers actually resolve to kill him. Reuven convinces them not to commit murder, so they decide to sell Joseph into slavery. They dip his special tunic in goat’s blood and bring it to Jacob as evidence of his favorite son’s fate. Meanwhile, Joseph is brought to Egypt, where he becomes a slave in the household of Pharaoh’s courtier Potiphar. The narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar and the birth of their sons Peretz and Zerach. The story returns to Joseph, who is successful in Potiphar’s house, earning his master’s trust. Yet when Potiphar’s wife fails in her attempt to seduce Joseph and accuses him of trying to rape her, Potiphar sends the young man to prison. Even in prison Joseph is successful, earning the trust of the chief jailer. In time, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker are imprisoned. Each has a disturbing dream that Joseph interprets, telling the cupbearer that he will be restored to his position and the baker that he will be executed. Events unfold as Joseph has foreseen; still, the chief cupbearer forgets his promise to bring Joseph’s case before Pharaoh.

1. Brotherly Hatred

At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamental tunic. 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. (Beresheit 37:2-4)

  1. One should never show favoritism to one son above the other, for because of the additional expenditure of the weight of two coins worth of fine wool for the many-colored coat that Jacob made for Joseph, beyond what he spent for his other sons, his brothers envied him, and the end result was that our forefathers went down to Egypt. (Talmud Shabbat 10b)
  2. Had Jacob shown the love to Benjamin that he showed to Joseph, the brothers would have assumed that their father loved the two because they were the children of his beloved Rachel. However, when they saw that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his brothers, i.e., even more than Benjamin, they suspected that this love stemmed from the fact that Joseph carried tales to his father, and he was building himself up at their expense. (Meshekh Hokhmah [Rabbi Meir Simha Hakohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Latvia])
  3. Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father. Can a righteous person then engage in slander? Rather, when a person has one son who excels above the others, the father shows him up as an example to the others. By doing so, he rebukes, punishes, and humiliates the other sons, telling them: “Why can’t you take an example from him? Why don’t you act as he does?” That was what happened with Joseph. As his actions were better than those of his brothers, he brought a bad report about them to his father. In other words, he was the cause of their father rebuking them. If that is the case, the question to be asked is why Joseph was punished. The answer is that a righteous person should hide his good deeds even from his father. (Rabbi Menahem of Amshinov, 1860-1918, Poland)
  4. They hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. But had they sat down together, they would have spoken to one another and told one another what bothered them. Then they would have ironed out their differences. The trouble in every argument is that there is no common language and no one is listening. (Tiferet Yonatan [Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschuetz, 1690-1764, Prague])

Sparks for Discussion

Jacob grew up in a home where his father clearly favored his brother (while he was his mother’s favorite). Why did he repeat the behavior that had caused him so much distress? The Torah expects us to learn empathy and compassion from our own mistreatment – you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot 22:20). Do you believe this is reasonable, or do those who have been mistreated go on to mistreat others?

Why did Jacob favor Joseph above his other sons? How much of the blame for the brothers’ hatred was due to Jacob’s actions, and how much to Joseph’s? Tiferet Yonatan says that if the brothers had only sat down and talked, they could have worked things out. Do you think this could be true?

2. To Do Right and Good In the Eyes of God

Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?” (Beresheit 37:26)

  1. Covering up his blood – and concealing his death. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. For our own honor and out of fear of our father. (Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. If we are forced to conceal the matter and keep it a secret, that is a sign that it is wrong. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland)
  4. [His disciples said to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai], Our master, bless us. He said to them: May it be God’s will that the fear of Heaven shall be as much upon you as the fear of flesh and blood. His disciples asked: Is that all? He replied: Would that you attained no less than such fear! You can see for yourselves the truth of what I say: When a man is about to commit a transgression, he says, “I hope no man will see me.” (Talmud Berachot 28b)
  5. If there is no God, all is permitted. (Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk offers a simple, pragmatic test for right behavior. When you contemplate a course of action, would you still do it if you knew your parents, spouse, or children would find out about it? If it would appear on the front page of the newspaper? Do you think this test is sufficient to insure moral behavior (or at least to prevent immoral behavior)?

What does Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s blessing add to your understanding of moral behavior? Is morality possible without God?

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