Chumash Themes #8: The Story of Joseph
Sold by his brothers into slavery, Joseph rises to great heights.
The story of Joseph is one of the most well-known of all biblical events – at least on the surface. As it is one of the longest stories in the Torah, we will retell it briefly:
Joseph is shown signs of favoritism by his father, Jacob; specifically he is given a beautiful coat. Joseph’s brothers, the rest of the Twelve Tribes, are jealous of this special relationship. That jealousy is only deepened when Joseph has symbolic dreams of his impending reign over the rest of the family. When Joseph meets the brothers in the pasture, they take the opportunity to sell him into slavery, and he ends up in Egypt. They douse Joseph’s coat in animal blood and tell Jacob that he must have been killed by wild animals.
Joseph, even while enslaved, utilizes his talents and becomes chief of staff of the Egyptian minister who bought him. He attracts the attention of the minister’s wife who tries to seduce him. When he refuses, she trumps up a charge of rape against him and has him thrown into prison. Once again Joseph rises to the top and becomes the chief of the prisoners. He befriends two of Pharaoh’s ministers and interprets their dream correctly. Joseph requests that one of them beg Pharaoh for clemency, but as is the way with important people, the minister forgets about Joseph as soon as he is out of jail.
Two years later, Pharaoh also has a dream, and Joseph is brought out of jail to interpret it. His interpretation of the impending famine is well-received, and Joseph is placed in charge of the preparations. He becomes the prime minister, marries, and has children.
When the famine begins, his brothers come to purchase food from Egypt, unaware that it is actually Joseph. Now is his chance to turn the tables! However, after ascertaining that they had truly repented for what they did to him, he reveals himself to them.
Joseph arranges for the entire family to descend to Egypt, and provides for them throughout the famine. Even when the famine ends, they remain in Egypt. Jacob and all his sons pass away, and the period of Egyptian exile begins.
We will discuss three key aspects of this story:
- the disagreement between the brothers
- Joseph as the representation of the Jewish people in exile
- Joseph’s revelation to the brothers of his true identity
What is most difficult to understand in this account is the behavior of Joseph’s brothers. In our mind’s eye, we usually picture them as adolescents. The reality is that they were adults – Joseph as the youngest was 17, and Reuven the eldest was 23. It is difficult to imagine such people – the future heads of the illustrious Twelve Tribes – being so upset over a trivial coat, however colorful it might be. And that they would then contemplate murder and ultimately compromise on “only” selling their brother into slavery, is even more difficult.
If we look at the context of the patriarchs, we can begin to see an answer. None of the patriarchs was an only son. Isaac had a half-brother Ishmael. Jacob had a twin brother, Esav. In each situation, a decision was made for one brother to carry on the family tradition, while the other brother leaves. In those two situations, the choice was more or less mutual. Neither Ishmael nor Esav was interested in promulgating the moral standards of Godliness in the world. So it is not surprising that Jacob’s children thought that maybe there was some kind of imperative that only one son can continue on the banner of Judaism.
Yet this family was different than the previous two generations. Jacob had managed to raise all his children to feel the privilege of continuing the family ideals. They were willing to stand apart from the rest of the world and be part of this groundbreaking spiritual movement. In other words, none of them wanted to join Uncle Esav.
That’s why the seeming favoritism toward Joseph concerned them. They felt that their chance to be part of this unique connection to God was being encroached upon. When someone is trying to force you out – not only of your financial birthright, but also your connection to eternity – then it is understood why drastic action might be called for.
Jacob, on the other hand, had no idea this dynamic was taking place. He viewed his children on such a lofty level, that he thought them above any disagreements. He was certain that they would view any individual gift as ultimately a benefit for the entire family and community.
Jacob was correct in this assumption, but it took a few years for it to be realized. Only after being threatened with the loss of their brother Benjamin, do the remaining brothers band together to protect each other. They come to appreciate how they are a nation, not just a random group of individuals. And it is then that Joseph reveals to them his true identity.
Now that we have answered the rationale as to what took place, we must deal with a more fundamental question: Why doesn’t the Torah spell all this out?! Why does the Torah allow us to mistakenly think we are dealing with childish, petty arguments? Even the Sages point to this story as a lesson for parents not to differentiate between siblings, since our forefathers went into exile over a pittance of cloth. But didn’t we just learn there is so much more depth to this story?!
The answer is part of the multi-dimensional aspect of the Torah, which can be understood on many levels. As in any literary work, context is all. But the Torah is different in that it can be viewed from various angles, and in every angle there is another truth to be learned.1 Read the story on its literal surface, and we learn the lesson of sibling rivalry. That is not the whole story, but the lesson is correct. Placing it in a different level of context, we learn a deeper lesson about the formation of the tribes. As we grow and see more of the context of the Torah, our perception of these events takes on new hues.
Joseph and the Exile
Joseph is the embodiment of the Jewish people. He goes into exile as a slave, rises above this humble beginning, and is then faced with temptation and assimilation. When he withstands this test, he appears to have lost out… but ultimately he is successful.
If we examine the different episodes of Joseph’s success, we find one common theme: Whenever he is singled out for his unique talents and capabilities, Joseph always credits God for his accomplishments. Standing in front of Pharaoh, and soon to be appointed prime minister, Joseph explains, “It is not me, for I am only an instrument of the Almighty” (Genesis 41:16).
Throughout Jewish history, leaders found something eminently trustworthy about a man who considers the Almighty – and not himself – to be the highest power. Daniel was an advisor to Babylonia ruler Nebuchadnezzar. Mordechai, of the Purim story, served as Prime Minister to Achashverosh. Maimonides was the royal physician to the Sultan of Egypt. And Don Yitzhak Abarbanel, the rabbinic leader of Spanish Jewry prior to the Inquisition, was the finance minister to King Ferdinand.
And this quality not only enables Joseph to survive his personal exile, but when his father, Jacob, meets him after 22 years, he can still recognize the young boy with whom he had studied Torah.
What is the root of Joseph’s amazing ability to overcome the struggles of alienation from his family, temptation, and pride? The Midrash enhances our understanding with the following event: When the wife of the minister had finally trapped Joseph alone in the house, he is almost ready to give in to her seduction. “Why should I be different than anyone else in this society?” says Joseph. But then at the crucial moment, a vision of his father appears to him. And that is enough to remind Joseph of who he is and what he is capable of. He escapes the clutches of temptation even as he leaves his shirt behind in the hands of the temptress.2 And so it throughout the ages: The Jewish people carry with them a vision of their ancestors, who inspire us to heights of spirituality in any circumstance.
Indeed, Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jewish children to be raised in the Diaspora. Despite great odds, they grew up in Egypt and maintained adherence to Torah ideals and practice.3
Day of Judgment
The third and final part of the story is the revelation of Joseph to his brothers. The brothers, having suffered pangs of remorse for 22 years, arrive in Egypt to purchase food to survive the famine. But instead of being allowed to purchase their needs like everyone else, they are subjected to incessant interrogation by the capricious prime minister of Egypt, i.e. Joseph. The last straw is when he accuses Benjamin of stealing his precious goblet. The brothers are ready to sacrifice themselves for Benjamin’s freedom, and Joseph takes this as a sign that the brothers have overcome the rivalries that had separated them previously.
Joseph’s revelation is dramatic and powerful. He stands before his brothers and suddenly speaking to them in Hebrew, says, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into slavery!”
Who can respond to such an accusation? Their awful deed is known, and it is coming full circle to haunt them. As Judah says: “God has uncovered our old guilt” (Genesis 44:16).
If we think about it, we will see that this challenge faces us throughout our life. We stand before not another human, but before our Creator, who knows all of our anxieties, shortcomings, and the myriad ways we try to hide it all. And at some point, we must respond to the revelation of that truth, as we are asked to somehow justify what we could have accomplished and did not. And just as the brothers stood there in open-mouthed trepidation, so do we.
The story of Joseph is the account of each of our lives: our rivalries, our alienation and temptation. And it challenges us to answer the ultimate question: “I am God, do you not recognize me?” Hopefully, by being real with ourselves, we can answer him, “Yes, I do.”
- Midrash Rabba (Numbers 13:15)
- Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeshev 9)
- Pesikta Rabbati (47 – Acharei Mot)