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Parashat Vayeishev

December 10, 2014

Cantor Sandy Horowitz

“Trouble, trouble, trouble trouble…trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born…”
Ray Lamontagne

At the beginning of Parashat Vayeishev we read that Jacob settled in the land of his fathers. Right away however, things become quite unsettled: “Joseph brought bad reports about [his brothers] to his father” (Gen 37:2). Jacob’s youngest son is a seventeen-year-old tattle-tale.

When we read the brothers’ perspective on the situation two verses later, we see that Joseph’s actions actually aren’t the primary reason for their hatred: “His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him” (Gen 37:4). Jacob’s blatant displays of favoritism are at the root of the problem.

Jacob’s favoritism goes back to Parashat Vayishlah, when he encountered his estranged brother Esau. As Esau advanced towards him with four hundred men, “He placed the maidservants and their children first and Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last” (Gen. 33:2). No doubt expecting a confrontation, Jacob knew that those closest to the front would be in the most danger; Rachel and Joseph were placed the farthest back, behind all the other brothers and their mothers. As Rashi says when citing Genesis Rabbah 78:8: “The further back the more beloved.” Clearly Joseph has always been favored, just as his mother Rachel was the most beloved by Jacob. By the time we get to this week’s events, the family dynamics are well in place–Jacob loves Joseph best, and Joseph enjoys flaunting his special status.

The situation worsens when Joseph chooses to share his literal dreams of grandeur. In the first dream regarding the twelve sheaves of wheat, he is at the center and all the other sheaves, those of the brothers, bow down to him; in the next dream the sun, moon and eleven stars bow to him. Ever the provocateur, he relates the dreams to his family. The filial hatred reaches its limit, the brothers throw Joseph into a pit, sell him into slavery and he is taken to Egypt.

When we pick up the narrative again in Chapter 39, we read that “The Lord was with Joseph” (Gen 39:2), as he ends up running the household of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chamberlain. When Potiphar’s wife accuses him of seducing her, thereby landing him in prison, we read again, “The Lord was with Joseph, and He extended mercy to him” (Gen 39:21). Regarding the word “mercy” (Hebrew: hesed), Rashi tells us this means that he was “well-liked by all who saw him.”

“Well-liked?” What a change from the earlier events of this Torah portion when he was so hated by his brothers! Why does God wait until now to bestow this quality of hesed upon Joseph?

If we look again at those earlier events, we notice that God is not mentioned at all in Chapter 37, but we can assume that God’s Presence is known. Jacob interacted frequently with God in the earlier narratives, starting with the pivotal moment after he fled his home, woke from his first dream and declared, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:16). Since Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, it’s likely the boy would have learned about God from his father. Joseph may even have understood that his dreams about the sheaves of wheat and the sun, moon and planets were prophetic; in later verses when he is asked to interpret the dreams of fellow-prisoners in Egypt we will hear him say, “Surely God can interpret; tell me your dreams” (Gen 40:8). But here, his immaturity and his embroilment in the family power dynamics were such that he used his dreams to provoke his brothers, doing so with no mention of God.

So, even though it is likely that Joseph, like his father, understood the presence of God, God chose not reveal God’s-Self until after Joseph came to Egypt. For if the Divine Presence had been made known any earlier, the hatred for Joseph might have abated and he never would have ended up in Egypt. Once there, we will read in coming weeks about Joseph’s rise to power at Pharaoh’s side, and the eventual reconciliation of the brothers. All of this sets the stage for the pivotal events in the book of Exodus, of slavery in Egypt and eventual freedom. But first this story has to hit rock-bottom-literally, with Joseph being thrown into the pit-before the later redemptive events can take place.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.