> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Beauty of Joseph

Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )


In this Torah portion, Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, predicting seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and as result becomes Viceroy, the second most powerful man in Egypt. When the famine hits as he had foreseen, his brothers come to Egypt to buy food. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He keeps his identity hidden while he decides to test them. It will be yet some time before he reveals himself and asks to send for his father.

Throughout the generations, Biblical scholars have been perturbed by Joseph's seeming callousness regarding the delay in meeting his father who is still mourning his death. Why did it take Joseph so long to orchestrate this reunion? One might excuse Joseph's desire for vengeance against his brothers for their perfidy, but even this seems to be inconsistent with Joseph's reputation as a tzaddik, a good and just man. Certainly, when vengeance impinges on Joseph's filial responsibilities and leaves Jacob mourning and in hunger, any delay seems inexcusable.

In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides (Ramban) poses this question: Why didn't Joseph try to contact his father during all his time in Egypt? After all, the distance between the land of Israel and Egypt is only "six days" of travelling, according to Nachmanides' calculations. Why, when he became the head of Potiphar's household -- and could easily do such a thing -- didn't Joseph send a letter to his father, informing him that he was alive and well? Certainly, once he became viceroy, the second most powerful man in Egypt, he could have done anything he wanted. All those many years of Jacob languishing, mourning for his favorite son, could have been avoided. Didn't Joseph miss his father just as much? How could he be apart from him all those years?

The answer which Nachmanides offers is that Joseph could not contact Jacob until the dreams of his youth had come true. Joseph had dreamt that his brothers would one day bow to him, and his revelation of this dream had set off the brothers' jealous rage that led to his eventual sale into slavery. Only when the dream came true could Joseph be vindicated and reveal himself.

Other Biblical commentators take issue with Nachmanides' response. Dreams are in the domain of God, they say; let Him worry about dreams. It is man's job to do that which is ethical, and the ethical thing for Joseph would have been to inform his father Jacob that he was alive and well.

A contemporary commentator, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, has suggested that perhaps the Nachmanides question is unfair. Instead, we should ask the reverse question: Why did Jacob not contact Joseph? The answer seems straightforward -- Jacob thought that Joseph was dead. But Joseph did not know what had happened back at home, and he could well have been asking himself: "Why doesn't my father contact me?" Certainly, the sequence of events, from Joseph's perspective, may suggest that line of thought.

Let us consider the circumstances: Joseph knew that Jacob was well aware of the enmity which existed between Joseph and his brothers. Might Joseph not been wondering why Jacob sent him to his brothers on that fateful day? Furthermore, there was a pattern in the family's history that whenever relatives did not get along, the solution was to separate. One can see this from the behavior of Abraham and Lot -- when they saw that they could not co-exist, they separated. The same happened with Ishmael and Isaac, and with Jacob and Esau. Joseph might well have assumed that because of all the dissension he stirred up in his father's house, Jacob decided to send him away.

Rabbi Bin Nun suggests that only upon learning from Judah that Jacob thinks his favorite son had been "ripped apart by beasts" [Genesis 44:28] did Joseph realize that his father thought that he was in fact dead. Therefore, at that point Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and sends for his father.

While Rabbi Bin Nun's interpretation is certainly highly original, it lacks support among the Sages. Moreover, it paints Joseph as a maladjusted individual, who is highly insecure in his father's love.

As noted earlier, the Sages teach us that one of the major themes of he entire Book of Genesis is maaseh avot siman l'banim, which iterally translates "the actions of the forefathers serve as a portent for their descendants" or, to put it more succinctly, "history repeats itself." The events in the Torah create spiritual realities which will be repeated at other junctures in Jewish history. Therefore, there must be a deeper significance to what happens here than mere insecurities of Joseph.

Rabbi Shimshon of Sens, one of the authorities in the school of Tosfot suggests:

"Had Joseph sent a message about everything which happened, his brothers would have scattered in every direction, because of the embarrassment. Therefore, Joseph worked slowly to bring them back to avoid embarrassing them. His intention was good." [Tosfot Hashalem]

According to Rabbi Shimshon, the dreams of Joseph's youth had nothing to do with his plan. Rather, he had a problem: How to inform his father that he'd been in Egypt all this time, because his brothers sold him as a slave. This idea is further developed in the comments of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:

" ... Joseph's consideration in not sending a letter to his father in his years of success was: What would Jacob gain in getting one son back, if in the process he would lose ten? ... Therefore, Joseph used all the subterfuge [necessary], and in my mind this was certainly worthy of the wisdom of Joseph." [Rabbi Shimshon R. Hirsch 42:9]

According to this approach, Joseph's consideration was completely selfless. To have been reunited with his father would clearly have been a great personal occasion, but it would have had tragic consequences. Therefore, Joseph chose to remain on his own. Other commentators believe that Joseph was motivated by the desire to rehabilitate his brothers. Joseph orchestrated the series of events which brought Benjamin to Egypt and provided his brothers with the opportunity to defend the youngest family member. So here too Joseph's goal is seen as beyond the personal, giving us a hint at the great spiritual level on which Joseph operated.

A close reading of the text on the one hand, and a survey of the Midrashic and Kabbalistic sources on the other, will foster a deeper understanding of Joseph, and will shed light on this issue.

The Torah's comments on Joseph's physical appearance are interesting:

Joseph was handsome and of fine appearance. [Genesis 39:6]

This comment is not made in Joseph's youth, or in the most logical context, the first time that he is introduced in the text. Rather, it appears only after Joseph has endured the ridicule of his brothers, sale and enslavement. The simple understanding is that the information is conveyed to explain why he attracts the attention of Potiphar's wife; in other words, it is mentioned where Joseph's physical appearance becomes relevant for the first time. However, the very verse which describes Joseph's looks is the same verse which Nachmanides alluded to above, when he pointed out the instances when Joseph would have had the ability, as head of Potiphar's household, to contact his father:

And he (Potiphar) left all that he had in the hands of Joseph ... and Joseph was handsome and of fine appearance. [Genesis 39:6]

Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to this reference to Joseph's beauty. What is the source of Joseph's good looks? The last person the Torah described as possessing beautiful looks was his mother Rachel:

And Rachel was beautiful and of fine appearance. [Genesis 29:17]

We may therefore conclude that Joseph looked like his mother. In fact both the Midrash and the Zohar allude to this connection.

Rabbi Yitzchak said, "Throw a stick to the ground, and it will land near the place you found it. For it says 'And Rachel was beautiful, and of fine appearance.' Therefore Joseph was handsome. [Midrash Rabba 86]

The Midrash is saying that "an apple doesn't fall far from the tree" and the source of Joseph's beauty was Rachel. The Zohar goes a bit further:

Whenever Joseph would walk by Jacob, he would look at Joseph, and his (Jacob's) soul would be restored, as if he was looking at the mother of Joseph, for the beauty of Joseph was similar to the beauty of Rachel. [Zohar 216b]

There seems no doubt then that Joseph's beauty was inherited from his mother. On the other hand, there are sources which indicate implicitly and explicitly that Joseph looked just like his father!

Rabbi Judah said, "His face (Joseph's) was like his (Jacob's)." [Midrash Rabba 84:8]

The Zohar, seemingly reversing itself, also stresses the resemblance between father and son:

Whoever would look at Joseph would see the image of Jacob. [Zohar 1:180a]

The similarity between father and son gives us insight to the comments of the Sages regarding Joseph's reaction to the seductive advances of the wife of Potiphar:

[When] 'she grabbed him by the clothing ...' at that moment the image of his father appeared to him in the window. [Talmud Sotah 36b]

When Joseph looks in the window he sees his own reflection, which looks just like his father. This is what strikes Joseph and saves him from temptation. If Joseph looked like his father what does it mean that his beauty was the beauty of his mother? Surely the Torah is not speaking about a trait which is only skin deep. Rachel's beauty must also represent some spiritual characteristic.

In a lengthy Midrashic discussion of the heavenly response to the destruction of the First Temple, God summons Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jeremiah. Each of these greats offers an argument as to why the Temple should be rebuilt. God, however, is unmoved. Then, the Midrash relates, Rachel speaks:

At that moment, our mother Rachel broke forth into speech before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, "Sovereign of the Universe, it is revealed before You that Your servant Jacob loved me exceedingly and toiled for my father on my behalf seven years. When those seven years were completed and the time arrived for my marriage with my husband, it came to my attention that my father was conspiring to switch my sister for me. It was very hard for me, because the plot was known to me and I disclosed it to my husband; and I gave him a sign whereby he could distinguish between me and my sister, so that my father should not be able to make the substitution. After that I relented, suppressed my desire, and had pity upon my sister that she should not be exposed to shame. In the evening they substituted my sister for me with my husband, and I delivered over to my sister all the signs which I had arranged with my husband so that he should think that she was Rachel. More than that -- I went beneath the bed upon which he lay with my sister; and when he spoke to her she remained silent and I made all the replies in order that he should not recognize my sister's voice. I was kind to her, was not jealous of her, and did not expose her to shame. And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King Who lives eternally and are merciful, be jealous of idolatry in which there is no reality, and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword, and their enemies have done with them as they wished!" [Eicha Rabba Intro. Sec. 24]

At that God's mercy is touched and He responds:

"For you Rachel I will return Israel to their place." [Ibid]

The beauty and greatness of Rachel is her ability to sacrifice her personal needs or desires for the sake of her sister. Joseph displays this same trait, but only when he is older, in Egypt. At that time he is first able to contact his father, and -- as a result of the self-sacrifice not to do so -- his beauty shines through.

In the words of the Midrash, the reward for Rachel's sacrifice was the building of the Second Temple. What was the reward for Joseph's sacrifice? We have touched upon the idea of history repeating itself through the spiritual forces unleashed by the events of our forefathers' lives. The Jews were destined to be enslaved, and their enslavement was set in motion by the sale of Joseph, by the spiritual dynamic of sinat chinam, "groundless hatred," which later turns out to be the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. The Second Temple was built upon the foundation of the love and kindness of Rachel, and, when her children ceased to act in a similar way, when hatred became a part of their lives, the Second Temple crumbled to the ground.

Extending this idea further we see that, had the potential of groundless hatred not been created, the Second Temple would not have been destroyed. This is why once the power of groundless hatred had been unleashed on the world by his brothers, Joseph sought to create a spiritual antidote.

A closer look at the original confrontation between Joseph and the brothers will clarify this concept. In the dream, which he related to his brothers, Joseph had seen that they would one day all bow down to him. But the brothers understood that the leader among the brothers, and for that matter of the entire nation, was Judah. Therefore Joseph's claim constituted a capital offense -- treason. The brothers misinterpreted Joseph's dreams as a rejection of Judah's leadership. But Joseph understood that the brothers must rally around him, a son of Rachel, as well as around Judah, son of Leah -- that the power of unity must be established as a spiritual precedent.

When the brothers come to Egypt searching for food, Joseph confronts them. The Torah describes the scene:

Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, and he spoke to them roughly, saying, 'From where have you come?' They said: 'From the land of Canaan, to buy food.' Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him. [Genesis 42:7-8]

The text is puzzling -- why should the Torah need to tell us twice that Joseph recognized his brothers? We recall that the metamorphosis of Judah took place in Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis [see Parshat Vayeshev] when 'Judah recognized ...' Now, again, the Torah uses the same words to indicate that Joseph acts with pure motives, that is, "for the sake of heaven".

Joseph continues to interrogate his brothers, accusing them of being spies. In their denial, they reply:

And they said, 'Your servants are twelve, we are brothers, sons of one man from the land of Canaan, the youngest is with our father, and one is missing.' Joseph responded and said, 'That is precisely what I meant when I said you are spies.' [Genesis 42:13-14]

The dialogue is quite obscure. Why is Joseph accusing them of being spies? What is he trying to get out of them? What does he hope their response will be? The answer is remarkably simple: He wants them to admit to "spying," that is, looking for their missing brother. He wants the brothers to rectify their perfidy. The truest repentance will be if they seek out Joseph, and rally around him as a brother, not as a replacement for Judah, but as a son of Rachel.

But the brothers miss their chance, so Joseph creates a second, albeit lesser, opportunity for rectification. If the brothers can rally around Benjamin, the second son of Rachel, they can be forgiven.

This is precisely what happens. Consequently, Benjamin becomes the unifying force in Israel. The Temple will stand in his territory. But this unity is incomplete -- it revolves around Benjamin and not around Joseph -- therefore later the Jewish people will once again become disunited and the Temple will fall, destroyed by groundless hatred.

The laws of repentance describe "complete" rectification as an exact repetition, that is having the same opportunity for sin arise and yet refraining from it.

How is one proved a repentant sinner? ... Rab Judah indicated: "With the same woman, at the same time, in the same place." [Yoma 86b, codified by Rambam "Laws of Teshuva" 2:1]

This did not take place. The brothers did not risk presenting themselves to the Prince of Egypt as spies, searching for their brother, wanting to find him at all costs to rectify their sin. But they did show that they were not capable of the same deed when they refused to sell out Benjamin. Repentance was there but incomplete, and therefore insufficient to eradicate their sin completely. Only repentance involving Joseph himself could have provided the complete antidote for the power of sinat chinam, the groundless hatred, the brothers had unleashed. We can now understand the comment of Rashi when Joseph and Benjamin embrace and Joseph cries on his younger brother's shoulder:

He cried ... [because] the two Temples which will stand in the portion of Binyamin will be destroyed. [Rashi, Genesis 45:14]

Joseph understood that one day the Jewish people will have to rally behind Joseph, not as a substitute for Judah, but as a preparation for the Kingdom of Judah. Apparently, Nachamides' comment that Joseph waited for fruition of his dreams before contacting his father, referred to the creation of spiritual precedents for the Jewish people.

There will be two messiahs one day -- Messiah Son of Joseph, who prepares the way for the Messiah Son of David, himself a descendent of Judah. According to tradition, the Messiah Son of Joseph will unite all Israel in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah Son of David, but will die in the process [Sukka 52a] in an act of self-sacrifice for his people. Just like his ancestor Rachel, whose self-sacrifice allowed the building of the Second Temple, his self-sacrifice will allow the building of the Third Temple. The spiritual model is Joseph, who chose not to contact his father even though it would have made for a "nicer" life.

Joseph the dreamer, the visionary, the interpreter of dreams, saw that which his brothers could not. He dedicated his life to others; he was the great provider for others. He passed on himself a sentence of loneliness, in order that others would have the chance to be redeemed. He was truly beautiful, just like his mother.

1 2 3 2,914

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram