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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayeshev
November 23, 2013 – 20 Kislev 5774

Annual (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23): Etz Hayim p. 226; Hertz p. 141
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Jacob gives Joseph a colored coat to show that he is Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph tells his brothers of dreams that his family will serve him. Enraged, the brothers plan to kill Joseph, until Reuven begs them not to; instead, they sell Joseph into slavery, and tell Jacob that Joseph had been killed by an animal.

Judah refuses to have his third son marry Tamar after his first two sons, who had been married to her, die. Tamar dresses as a harlot and seduces Judah. When Tamar is discovered pregnant, she is saved from execution only after Judah acknowledges he is the babies’ father.

Joseph, now in Egypt, serves Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph; when he refuses her advances, she accuses him of rape. Joseph is imprisoned. While there, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker. But while the baker is executed, the butler forgets Joseph once he is restored to his post.

Theme #1: Playing Favorites

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. (Genesis 37:3)

Just as Rebecca and Isaac have their favorite son, Jacob has his own, and he makes no secret of it. It is a mistake Jacob had seen throughout his life, one that he will wind up committing through the end of his life.

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children,” because Joseph’s radiant features were like his. (Genesis Rabbah 84:7)

What sets Joseph apart is not that he was the youngest son, but the fact that he was born in his father’s old age to Jacob’s favorite wife, a connection made clear in the description of him as “attractive and good-looking” … exactly the same phrase used earlier to describe his mother Rachel (Genesis 29:17, 39:6). It is this which makes Joseph distinct from his brothers, who have barely any distinguishing characteristics at all. (Frederick E. Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together)

Of all people, Jacob should know that favoring one son rips a family apart, but he can’t help it. Because Joseph is the first son of his beloved wife Rachel, Jacob singles Joseph out as his darling. He gives Joseph the special present of a “Technicolor dreamcoat” (oh, wait, I mean “ornamented tunic”). Given Joseph’s twerpiness and Jacob’s favoritism, is it any surprise that the older brothers “could not speak a friendly word” of Joseph? Can you blame them? (David Plotz, Good Book)

Questions for Discussion:

Genesis Rabbah tells us that the main reason for Jacob’s favoritism is that he sees himself in Joseph. How typical is it for people to say that a child looks more like his/her mother or father? Does it resonate with parents when their children look like them? Do such comments impact the child? Do physical similarities imply personality similarities as well?

Greenspahn connects different verses in Genesis to show that Jacob looks a lot like his mother, not necessarily his father, and that he is the only one of Jacob’s sons whose physical features are described. Is it fair for us to treat people according to someone else they allegedly resemble? Or is it healthy to tell a child they remind you of someone else, so that they may feel a connection to that person and try to resemble them in other positive ways? Might such expectations become a burden on the child?

Plotz is completely sympathetic with Joseph’s brothers’ feelings. Are you? Do any of the characters in the opening verses of our portion seem like “the good guys”?

Theme #2: Chutzpah

He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.” His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams. He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Genesis 37:6-9)

When we study the Torah, we can learn different lessons about the characters’ words depending on how we imagine their body language and tone. When you imagine how Joseph describes his dreams to his family, you might see him as haughty, innocent, enthusiastic, condescending, or any combination thereof.

Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina: Jacob thought that resurrection would take place in his days. Hence he said, “I and your brethren shall indeed come” (that may well be; but “Shall I and your mother” come? Rachel is dead, yet you say that I and your mother [will come to bow down to you]? But our ancestor did not know that it applied to Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, who had brought him [Joseph] up like a mother. (Genesis Rabbah 84:11)

Why doesn’t Joseph tell his dreams to the women in the family? Why does he tell his two dreams (of his brothers’ sheaves bowing down to this sheaf, and of the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing to him (only to the men? … [Dinah, Joseph’s sister, responds:] “Foolish Joseph! Had he told his dreams to the women in the family (me, his father’s wives, his sisters-in-law, his nieces (we would have recognized in these fantasies nothing more than the intemperate arrogance of youth. Instead he told my brothers, who interpreted his dreams as an expression of his ambition to lord it over them. A different reading of Joseph’s dreams might well have changed the course of our family and thus of national history.” (Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam)

[Joseph] feels neglected, and he feels special. As the youngest, he imagines that his brothers will pay homage to him. Secure in the affections of his father, he turns his brothers’ dismissal into a haughty antagonism. He has the arrogance of the outsider who sneers at what he craves; the one at the party who refuses to dance because he is afraid he will not have another chance, because refusal is permanent and therefore safe. … Joseph’s dreams are part of a long line of dreams born of resentment mixed with pride. He has the hubris of a dreamer, but he also has the dreamer’s sprinkling of particular grace. (Rabbi David Wolpe, Making Loss Matter)

Questions for Discussion:

Genesis Rabbah reveals the concept that Bilhah has a special place in Joseph’s heart, as a maternal figure after Rachel’s death. Jacob does not realize that Joseph has Bilhah in mind. How typical is it to have people who are not blood relatives who are still considered, essentially, as immediate family? There was a time when close family friends were referred to as “aunt” or “uncle.” What kind of qualities must someone have to “become” a part of an immediate family?

Frankel’s work, in part, adds womens’ voices to the Torah narrative. In her characterization of Dinah, Frankel claims that whereas the women of the family would have humored Joseph’s assertions, the men of the family saw Joseph as a threat. Are the respective reactions to this event are colored heavily by gender? What other factors (i.e., age, economic status, familial status) impact the reading of ancient stories like this?

Wolpe sees Joseph as both egotistical and charming at the beginning of this narrative. Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” Is it appropriate to be charmed by outspoken people who are full of themselves if they prove themselves worthy of their own praise? At what point can a great person’s arrogance overshadow their achievements? Or should their accomplishments and attitude always be judged separately?

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