Who Was Joseph?
The parashah for these Shabbatot—from Vayeshev to the end of Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis)—have always seemed to me in some ways to resemble a short novel, dealing as they do (in addition to the religious message, foreshadowing future Jewish history, etc.) with the vagaries of human personality, with all the passions, wiles, and dilemmas of the protagonists, including some less pleasant and even ugly manifestations. Vayeshev begins with the tale of hatred, resentment, jealousy and violence involved in the story of Joseph and his brothers; goes on to the story of Judah and Tamar, in which the latter, motivated by an overwhelming wish for children, pretends to be a harlot so as to tempt Judah into a casual sexual dalliance by which he will impregnate her; continues with the intense lust of Potiphar’s wife for the handsome stranger living in her house which, once thwarted, turns to hatred and a desire for vengeance (not entirely untypical of women frustrated in such a way); and concludes with Joseph in prison, where his talents as a dream interpreter, which will later stand him in very good stead, first come to the fore.
It is interesting that in all these stories Joseph appears as a scapegoat of sorts. But he is not only an innocent victim. His character is a complex one. The term Yosef ha-Tzaddik, “Joseph the Righteous,” used in the Rabbinic tradition, is one that many modern people may well find problematic. We often see him acting in ways far more arrogant than the other patriarchs. There is something annoying, vaguely narcissistic and self-righteous, about his behavior. One can at least partially sympathize with his enemies and those who hated him. The brothers must have seen him as acting superior, a “daddy’s boy” (“And Joseph brought their bad report to their father”—Gen 37:2), and one can identify with their feeling thus. He is reminiscent of a schoolboy who is always telling the teacher about the misbehavior of his classmates—the “tattle-tale,” more a term of approbation than of admiration.Even the story of Potiphar’s wife is problematic. How would any of us react if an alluring, powerfully sexual woman were to proposition us—particularly if this were to happen when we were young and inexperienced, with the powerful sexuality of early adulthood? Would we so easily refuse? Yosef’s behavior seems too “good” to be true. The tradition describes him as a Tzaddik, and even sees this incident as a kind of template for holy behavior—but is he such, or might we, with our modern sophistication about sexual matters, see him as an insufferable prig? Had he gone with her it would clearly have been a sin, not to mention a violation of the trust placed in him by his employer—but was his abstinence a reflection of mature moral conviction, or reflection of an adolescent fear of sexuality?
It is illuminating to compare all this to Judah’s style of leadership. The latter’s position of guidance was based upon a clear understanding of life, and knowing how to be a “khevreman”—a friendly participant in the group, “first among equals,” rather than a smug, superior outsider who seems to know everything better than others. Indeed, it is Judah who is ultimately the leader, and the forebear of the Israelite monarchy. This first appears in his insistence to his siblings that they not kill Joseph, and comes to the fore more clearly in this week’s reading, Miketz.
These chapters also deal with dreams, centered around the figure of Joseph. They opens with Joseph’s own dreams of power and domination—first that of the sheaves bowing down to him, taken as a symbol of the ten brothers (Benjamin was too small to be included among them and, as Joseph’s only full brother—i.e., a child of the same mother—was never a rival or enemy); thereafter, in the dream of the stars and the sun and the moon, he is even seen as dominant over his parents as well. A modern reader might well see these dreams as reflecting a kind of megalomania. At the end of Vayeshev, Joseph is imprisoned alongside the baker and the cup bearer, for whom he plays the role of dream interpreter. They ultimately recommend his talents to Pharaoh, whose disturbing dreams are revealed to be of portentous national significance.
What are dreams, anyway? Are they a form of revelation of cosmic secrets, or an expression of the unconscious? Either way, they have been seen by mankind, in ancient times as well as modern, as significant messages, outside of the regular order of “real” knowledge, bringing us awareness of things that would otherwise be unknown. In a religious worldview, in which there is Divine revelation, they are not on the same level as “God spoke all these things,” but are seen as meaningful and deserving of careful consideration. They belong to another, mysterious—well, “dream-like”—realm, containing strange, surreal truths that need to be unraveled and interpreted.
As we turn to Miketz, the reading for the present Shabbat, other aspects of Joseph’s character come to the fore. Here we see him in a position of leadership in Egypt, the most powerful empire of the day. After deciphering Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph was elevated to the position of vizier, second only to Pharaaoh, overseeing a program of national relief in face of a calamitous famine—a circumstance which ultimately leads to the reuniting of his family. We are reminded—and we shall see this more clearly in Parashat Vayigash, in his economic policy—as the forebear of all those brilliant Jews, like Benjamin Disraeli, who played crucial roles of economic leadership and policy making in Western regimes in recent centuries.
Here we see another aspect of Joseph’s character, which has been an endless subject for discussion among commentators and stam Jews reading these chapters: the game of “Hide and Seek” or concealed identity that he plays with his brothers, who have perhaps long given him up for dead. The perennial question here is: Why did Joseph conceal his identity from his brothers? Why didn’t he say, “I am your long-lost brother Joseph” as soon as they arrived to buy grain in Egypt? And how could he torture tem, and his own father, with the demand that they bring Benjamin down to confront whom they perceived as a powerful and dangerous stranger?
We can well imagine the ambivalence he felt: on the one hand, hostility and even hatred for the way they treated him as a youth; and, on the other hand, love and closeness tom these men, who were after all his only true family. He had lived for years as an Egyptian, and eve had an Egyptian wife, Osnat bat Poti-fera, but one gets the feeling that those ties were not as deep as those to his elderly father and to his brother Benjamin, and even his highly ambivalent feelings towards his older brothers who had cruelly mistreated him. Thus, he concealed or least did not overtly display his Hebrew origins to the Egyptians (again, like the classic “Court Jew” of modern times), meanwhile marrying and raising his own family—but his deepest ties were surely to his father, and perhaps this younger brother Benjamin. This ambivalence, a mixture of love and suspiciousness, is hinted at explicitly by the biblical text when, one two occasions during the meetings with his brothers, “his mercies are aroused” and he turns aside and weeps (42:24; 43:30-31). We thus have a tension between deliberate, controlled, calculated action and his own spontaneous, inner emotions. This conflict reaches its climax in next week’s parashah, at 45:1 ff.
We mentioned earlier Judah and his sterling qualities as leader. It seems that his innate nobility again comes to the fore in this chapter, in the manner in which he acts as spokesman for the brothers, considering and weighing the effect of all these things on his father, and in his concern for the young Benjamin. This, too, reaches its climax and denouement at the beginning of next week’s Parashat Vayigash; It would seem that the fathers of the tradition showed a keen sense for the dramatic when they decided to cut off this week’s parashah where they did, leaving the listeners in the synagogue to wait a week to hear the dramatic confrontation between Joseph and Judah for the start of next week’s parashah.