Fraught with Background
By Alan Levenson

Erich Auerbach (1892’1957), a great German-Jewish scholar of
literature, once wrote that to fully appreciate any particular
character or narrative in TaNaKh (Jewish Bible) one must appreciate
that they are ‘fraught with background.’ In Genesis 37 we are given
several good reasons for the brothers’ hatred of Joseph. He is a
tattletale; he is the recipient of a visible symbol of Jacob’s
favoritism (the ketonet passim’the special coat); and he obliviously
relates those self-aggrandizing dreams’twice. Although the brothers are
already past the point of speaking civilly to him (Gen. 37:4b),
Joseph’s dreams seem to be the ‘tipping point.’ When Joseph finally
finds the brothers at Dothan, they refer to him as follows: ‘hiney ba’al ha-halamot ha lazeh ba’ (Gen 37:19). I hear much more of an edge in the Hebrew than in the pat OJPS translation, ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh.’

On first glance, then, the brothers’ hatred is adequately explained
by Genesis 37’which brings me back to Auerbach. It seems to me that
only when we read this scene against what has come before can we fully
appreciate the depth of the brothers’ feelings. (It goes without saying
that fraternal conflict has been a major theme in Genesis since the
primordial siblings’Cain and Abel.)

Instead of treating the opening of Vayeshev as the beginning
of the Joseph narrative only, let us take a look at Genesis 37 as a
continuation of what’s come before. To begin with, imagine the impact
Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah must have made on Leah’s
growing sons. Perhaps Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Judah could have
avoided transferring their anger at Jacob to Joseph, but circumstances
made that difficult. Above all, it was Joseph’s birth that prompted
Jacob to leave Mesopotamia and return to Eretz Yisrael‘the land
of Israel. Imagine being a teenager at Paddan-Aram High School and
being told that you had to say goodbye to your friends and family.
(Lavan treated Jacob, Leah and Rachel badly’but we know nothing of his
relations with his nephews.) Once again, it’s conceivable that the
brothers would not have borne a grudge, but far more probably, they
would have. Finally, there is the fateful meeting with Esau. In Genesis
33:2, Jacob lines up the family not knowing whether Esau is
contemplating a reunion or a massacre: ‘And he put the handmaids and
their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel
and Joseph last.’ (Genesis 33:7 repeats the information that Joseph and
Rachel were placed farthest from Esau, although mother and son have
switched places.)

Jacob’s preference for Rachel, his decision to leave Paddan-Aram, his encounter with Esau, all occur before parashat Va’yeshev‘but
how ‘fraught with background’ the opening of that story is! In this
particular instance, heeding what came before Genesis 37 mitigates the
brothers’ actions at the well’at least partially.

Auerbach also contrasted the Bible’s rich concept of character
development with the static and unchanging characters in Homer’s epics.
Ultimately, the sons of Leah prove themselves capable of sincere teshuvah‘repentance’and
almost superhuman fraternal feelings’witness Judah’s offer to serve as
a substitute bondsman for Benjamin, a narrative surrogate for Joseph.
Ultimately, Joseph learns to care for others’witness his provisioning
of Egypt and his selfless assurances to his brothers in Genesis
50:19’21. But, all that comes many years later’a consequence, not a
cause, of the fraternal strife that stamps Genesis.

Personally, the lesson I draw from Auerbach’s analysis of TaNaKh is
to try to remember that we all arrive on any scene as partly written
texts, fraught with background. May we be each other’s sympathetic
readers and incline the next chapters in our lives favorably. Ken yehi ratzon‘may this be God’s will.