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Joseph - The Fourth 'Patriarch'

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Of all the sons of Jacob, the Torah gives by far the most attention to Joseph. It is very apparent that his contribution to the future of the Jewish people was even more significant than that of his brothers. Rav Yitzchak Hutner speaks in depth about Joseph's unique role in the development of The Jewish nation.(1) It is instructive to analyze Joseph's contribution and how it influenced the following generations of Jews as they faced the challenges of Exile.

Rav Hutner notes that whilst Joseph was one of the twelve Tribes, he also seems to play a more significant role than his brothers in the development of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish nation). For example, each brother represented one tribe, whereas Joseph, through his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, represented two tribes. Rav Hutner also notes a unique fact about Joseph - his death is mentioned twice; once at the end of the Book of Bereishit,(2) and once in the beginning of the book of Shemot.(3) In contrast, the death of all the other brothers is only mentioned in Shemot. How do we understand the nature of Joseph's role?

Rav Hutner explains that Joseph is somewhere in between the Avot (Patriarchs) and the Shevatim (tribes).(4) In a certain sense he is close to being an Av, but in other aspects he is like one of the Shevatim. Rav Hutner explains that the status of 'Av' is ascribed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because each played a defining role in creating the concept of Klal Yisrael, and ensuring that it would last permanently: Abraham was the first 'convert' and he thereby created the very existence of a 'Jew' as someone who follows the God's will. Isaac was the first to be holy from birth, thus providing the Jewish nation with a level of purity and holiness that it would need to last. However, Abraham and Isaac's contributions do not necessarily ensure that the Jewish nation will endure because they both had children who are not considered to be part of the Jewish nation. Thus, it would still be possible for their descendants to be unworthy of being part of Klal Yisrael. Jacob was the first of whom all his children remained part of the new Jewish nation. In doing this, he created the concept that someone born of a Jewish woman will always be a Jew, regardless of his actions.

However, Rav Hutner points out, that Yaakov's role of ensuring Jewish continuity is still incomplete, due to the halacha (law) that the child of a non-Jewish woman is a non-Jew, even if the father is Jewish. Because of this halacha, the permanence of Klal Yisrael is still not ensured. It is in this area that Joseph plays a defining role. He, unlike his brothers, was alone in an alien atmosphere and subjected to great temptations, particularly the test involving Potiphar's wife. Through his ability to withstand such challenges, and to maintain his identity as a 'Jew', he infused into all future generations the ability to withstand the future challenges of the exiles in which Jews will be under great pressure to assimilate with the other nations. In this way, Joseph's contribution acts as a completion of Yaakov's role in ensuring Jewish continuity. Yaakov created the concept that a person born from a Jewish woman is always a Jew, but Joseph ensured that he have the fortitude to refrain from intermarriage.

With this understanding, we can explain why Joseph's death is mentioned both at the end of Bereishit, and at the beginning of Shemot. The Ramban writes that the Book of Bereishit is the book of the Patriarchs, and Shemot is the book of the 'children'.(5) The deaths of all of Jacob's sons, with the exception of Joseph, are only mentioned in Shemot because that is the book of the children. Joseph is also partly considered one of the tribes, therefore his death is also mentioned in Shemot. However, he also plays a role as a kind of half-Patriarch, through the completion of Jacob's role. Accordingly, his death is also discussed in Bereishit. Similarly, he merits having two tribes descend from him, because he is something more than a regular tribe.(6) The question remains, how was Joseph able to withstand the great tests of being surrounded by an atmosphere that made it so difficult to maintain one's allegiance to God. Not only did Joseph succeed in remaining strong himself, but he was also able to bring up children in Egypt who would continue the tradition of the Patriarchs.

In these Torah Portions, we see a number of examples of Joseph's behavior that can help explain his remarkable adherence to God. At the beginning of Mikeitz, Joseph was suddenly taken out of prison and placed in front of Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world. Pharaoh asked him to interpret his dreams. Even before Pharaoh related the contents of the dreams, Joseph boldly asserted; "This is beyond me, it is God who will respond to Pharaoh's welfare." (7) Every year we read this verse and give it little thought, but with some reflection we can begin to fathom how incredible Joseph's words are; he had been imprisoned in a hell-hole for 12 years and was finally given a golden opportunity to attain freedom, if only he could appease Pharaoh, he can have a new start in life. He knew that Pharaoh did not believe in the Jewish God, indeed he believed that he himself was a god, and his arrogance was unmatched: What would a person say in such circumstances? Joseph would have been justified in thinking that now was not the right time to attribute everything to God and that he would surely be justified in selling himself and his talents as much as possible. Yet Joseph did not hesitate to attribute all of his talents to God.(8) This is a remarkable lesson in how to act in an alien environment, a test that all the generations of Galut (exile) had to face. One could try to hide his Judaism from the non-Jews, in an effort to hide the differences between them. Sadly, history has proven that this approach generally resulted in assimilation. By removing the barriers between Jews and non-Jews, one opens the way for the loss of his Jewish identity. However, Joseph's confidence in asserting his beliefs proved to be one of the reasons why he and many in the future generations, were also able to withstand assimilation throughout the long Galut.

After Joseph became Viceroy, he had two sons; he names the second son, Ephraim, "because My God made me fruitful in the land of my suffering." (9) Rav Moshe Sternbuch explains that Joseph was calling Egypt "the land of my suffering" even at his present time of being the Viceroy. Thus, whilst he acknowledged that he had become fruitful in Egypt, nonetheless, it remained as the 'land of his suffering'. In this way, Joseph avoided the trap of feeling comfortable and at home in Egypt, despite his great success.(10) This provides another reason why Joseph was able to remain steadfast in his adherence to Torah values whilst being surrounded by alien influences. History has proven on many occasions that once a Jew becomes overly comfortable in Galut, then he is far more likely to assimilate into the nation that he lives in. This was the case in Germany when the early Reform Jews called Berlin, 'the New Jerusalem"; it also proved to be the case in America, of which numerous Jews saw as the land of opportunity. Sadly, in their efforts to succeed as Americans, untold thousands were lost to the Jewish people forever.

We have seen how Joseph exemplified the ability to maintain his values and identity, in the midst of an atmosphere that was foreign to everything he stood for. In doing, this, he infused the Jewish people with the ability to follow in his footsteps and reject assimilation throughout the long exile. It is no co-incidence that Parshat Mikeitz always falls on Chanukah - the lessons of the Portion relate to Chanukah. In this instance, the connection is clear; the Greek exile was the first in which the disease of assimilation posed a major threat to Jewish continuity. Throughout the previous exiles and suffering, the Jews maintained their sense of identity. However, the Greeks were the first nation to offer a genuinely enticing ideology. Sadly, a significant number of Jews failed to learn from Joseph, and gladly tried to remove all vestiges of their Judaism - they even tried to undo their circumcisions! However, the Hasmoneans and many Jews with them, resisted the attraction of the Greek way of life, and risked their lives to maintain their Jewish identity. Like Joseph's strength in Egypt, the spiritual victory over the Greeks and the Egyptians (11) can continue to give us guidance and inspiration to withstand the challenges of exile to this day.


1. Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, Maamer 49.

2. Bereishit, 50:26.

3. Shemot, 1:6.

4. The Gemara in Brachot, 16b, says that there are only three Avot. Therefore, Joseph is certainly not a full Av, but he represents something of a transition between the Avot and Shevatim.

5. Ramban, Introduction to Sefer Shemot.

6. Indeed, the Sages say that he should have had twelve children who would have constituted twelve tribes, but for the moment of temptation that he felt with Potiphar's wife.

7. Mikeitz, 41:16.

8. This idea was heard from Rav Yehoshua Hartman shlit"a.

9. Bereishit, 41:52.

10. Taam v'Daat, 41:52.

11. This is the name given to those who adopted the Greek lifestyle.





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