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Yosef's Youthfulness

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Bereishit, 37:2: “These are the offspring of Yaakov, Yosef was seventeen years, he was shepherding with the flock with his brothers and he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, the wives of his father…
Rashi, 37:2: Dh: Vehu naar: “He was doing acts of youthfulness [such as] fixing his hair, adorning his eyes so that he would appear handsome.

The Torah Portion begins with the description of Yosef as a youth. Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains that this means that Yosef acted immaturely, like a young lad, in that he would fix his hair and touch up his eyes so that he would look handsome. Yosef was only aged 17 at this time, yet it is difficult to accept the superficial understanding of this Midrash that Yosef was overly vein. Chazal give him the unparalleled title of Yosef, the righteous one, and they tell us that he resembled Yaakov in every way. Moreover, we know that he exhibited inhuman self-control to overcome temptations that he faced during his time in Egypt. Accordingly, it seems far-fetched to believe that he was simply preening himself out of vanity.

Moreover, the Sages again accuse him of acting in a youthfully vein fashion a number of years later, when he has achieved a prominent position in the house of Potiphar, a powerful Egyptian minister. The Torah says, that he was beautiful1, and Rashi, again citing a Midrash, writes: “Since he saw himself ruling, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One Blessed is He, said, ‘your father is mourning and you are curling your hair?!’” At this point, Yosef was no longer as young, and yet he is still accused of beautifying himself, and again it is hard to believe that he was doing this out of pure vanity.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab2 offers a very interesting insight that sheds light on this problem. He explains what the Torah means when it describes Yosef as a ‘youth’. He notes that the Torah also uses this term in Vayishlach with regard to Shechem, son of Chamor. After being offered the opportunity to marry Dina by undergoing circumcision for himself and his nation, Shechem eagerly accepts the offer. The Torah tells us: “And the ‘youth’ did not delay to carry out the matter (of circumcision) because he desired Yaakov’s daughter.” Shechem’s age at this time is not certain, but it seems clear that he was not a young lad, and he was definitely considered to be a distinguished person. Rather, Rav Shwab suggests, his description as a youth is symbolic of the impetuousness of youth. Young people tend to be more impatient and in turn are prone to act impulsively, rushing to a course of action, without properly considering the consequences. That was Shechem’s mistake – he was so impatient to marry Dina, that he rushed the nation into the agreement with Yaakov’s sons and to undergo circumcision without considering possible pitfalls to this decision. Hence, he is called a youth.

When the Sages say that Yosef acted as a youth, they mean that, on some small level, he fell prey to this same mistake of impatience which can lead to impulsive behavior. Yosef correctly foresaw in his dreams that he was destined to be the King of his brothers. One of the laws of monarchy is that the King must be physically prominent, as it says in the Navi. “A king in his glory your eyes shall behold.”3 In that vein, the Gemara4 states that a King must groom his hair daily – he represents the people and he must have the type of handsome appearance that people can respect. Yosef already saw himself as being a monarch at the young age of 17, and consequently he fixed his hair, not out of vanity, but as a recognition of the importance of the King having a noble appearance. The problem was that he saw himself as the ruler of his brothers before the proper time for that relationship to develop. Thus, his mistake was that he was premature in his assessment of his role as King – he acted to a certain degree out of impatience and as a result he acted impulsively, not recognizing the potential dangers of communicating to his brothers that he was already their King.

Some time later, when he attained a position of leadership in Potiphar’s house, Yosef returned to fixing his hair, because he again thought that this was the time to act like the King, which he knew he was destined to become. However, again, he was premature and it is this premature behavior which was the act of youthfulness that the Midrash attributes to Yosef.

We have seen how youthfulness is characterized by impatience and impetuosity, sometimes acting without considering the long-term consequences of one’s actions. In contrast, the Tanach uses the word ‘Zakein’ which normally means ‘Elder’ to refer to a scholar, and one aspect of the Elder, is the trait of patience, and a thought-out approach to decisions. In this vein, Chazal tell us that one of the definitions of a Wise man is that he sees the possible long-term outcomes of his decisions.5 It is evident that Yosef became a very wise man in this sense as well as according to the traditional understanding, in that in all of his actions as Viceroy of Egypt, he had in mind the long-term welfare of the Jewish people, and prepared the way to make their upcoming Exile as bearable as possible.

The example of Yosef teaches us the pitfalls of impulsiveness and the importance of acting with forethought. May we merit to apply these lessons to our lives.

  1. Bereishit, 39:6.
  2. Me’eyn Beit Shoeva, Vayeishev, 37:2. Cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
  3. Yeshaya, 33:17.
  4. Sanhedrin, 22b.
  5. Tamid, 32a.

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