My Weekly D’var Torah : Parasha Vayeishev וישב : Joseph – the mini-series, part 1 (“Sibling rivalry, the famous tunic and the arrival in Egypt”)
If I were a TV producer, I would immediately grab the rights to “Joseph” in the next four parsashiot (chapters) and turn them into a mini-series. Joseph’s story is a sexy thriller and cliff-hanger. This week’s chapter, Vayeishev וישב, is part 1: “Sibling rivalry, the famous tunic and the arrival in Egypt”.
Joseph is a critical actor in the story of the Jewish people. Only Moses is given more “ink” in the Torah. But, for important reasons, Joseph is also sidelined. He is not considered a, nor does he ascend to, the level of patriarch.
Let’s turn back to last week’s chapter and remember the birth order and composition of Jacob’s family.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number. The sons of Leah: Reuben—Jacob’s first-born—Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin.The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali. And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob…. (GEN 35:22-26)
PS. Dinah is absent!
Keep the lineage in mind as we move through our mini-series…..
1. At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (GEN 37:2-5)
The story does not start out well. Joseph, a young smart-aleck (17 years old!), tattles on his brothers (and not the brothers close to him – these are the half brothers of the least favored wives, servants to Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah). His father gives him a new jacket or tunic (very expensive and very beautiful) which further enrages his brothers.
2. Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more.He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.” His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams. He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. “What,” he said to him, “is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind. (GEN 37:5-11)
Joseph proceeds, without any self-awareness, to tell his brothers his dreams in which they all bow down to him. Smart-aleck but not smart! The Torah, as usual, does not flinch. His brothers hate him! Even Jacob, his father, gets irritated with him.
Nahum Sarna wisely points out that Joseph, at 17 years old, has grown up without his mother, Rachel. He is a boy adrift trying to find his way. His arrogance is his attempt to find favor with his older brothers and to find a place in his family. Moving!
3. Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.”. And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” (GEN 37:13-20)
This is a dense passage which deserves some unpacking:
“I am ready” says Joseph. וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי׃ : Every time someone answers הנני, “I am here” or “I am ready”, trouble follows. Abraham answered “I am ready” and was asked to kill his son. Esau answers “here I am” and then gives up his birthright. Moses answers “here I am” when he confronts the burning bush and is conscripted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And, of course, Joseph escapes near death at the hands of his brothers.
A “man” comes upon Joseph. Who is this “man”? Likely not a man at all, no more than the “man” who confronted Jacob and wrestled with him. Like storm clouds gathering with the distant sound of thunder, this encounter signals that a major change in Joseph’s life is afoot.
4. But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.”And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to a meal. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt. When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” Then they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood. (GEN 27:21-31)
The brothers are callous and hateful to Joseph. This is fierce sibling rivalry. But, the two eldest boys, Reuben and Judah, prevent Joseph’s death. As Judah says, “After all he is our brother”. I will return to the question of birth order and sibling rivalry in future “episodes” of our series. Stay tuned!
Jacob deceived his father by dressing as Esau. Joseph’s tunic, dipped in blood, is used to deceive Jacob. We will see other examples in coming episodes where clothes deceive. In short, in the Torah (and in life) when true inner transformation takes place it is signaled by a change of name. When the changes are superficial or downright false, the changes are signaled by a change of clothing. “Clothes do not make the man”.
5. Tamar and Judah
I am going to skip this subchapter. It will go into another mini-series entitled “Judah” (who deserves his own series!). But, if interested (and the story is a mini-thriller filled with sex, deception, guilt and finally remorse and the lineage of Israel’s greatest king, David!).
6. Joseph, Potiphar and Potiphar’s wife.
When Joseph was taken down to Egypt, a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. The LORD was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD lent success to everything he undertook, he took a liking to Joseph. He made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned. And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of the LORD was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Joseph was well built and handsome. After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her. One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.” She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. Then she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me; but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside.” When his master heard the story that his wife told him, namely, “Thus and so your slave did to me,” he was furious. So Joseph’s master had him put in prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. (GEN 39:1-20)
Joseph was “well built and handsome”. This is a rare moment when the Torah lets on to sexual attraction and the following story with Potiphar’s wife who desperately wants to have sex with him is also more than eyebrow raising. Several notes before we end:
The Torah again is unflinching in its honest portrayal of human behavior.
Clothes, once again, betray people as Joseph’s garment will, once again, betray him.
In my mini-series, I am casting Paul Newman as Joseph (“well built and handsome”) and Halle Berry as Potiphar’s wife.
7. The end of the chapter : the baker and the cupbearer in prison with Joseph.
Joseph ends up in prison after Potiphar, the chief-of-staff to Pharoah, listens to his wife. But he is placed in a minimum security facility (for white collar crime) with high members of the court. There he meets the baker and the chief cupbearer who ask him to interpret their dreams. He does and the fate of both is sealed (good for the cupbearer and not so good for the baker). Read the text here.
“Cupbearer” is a strange word and term. Today, we would use the word “wine director” or “sommelier”. Someone who looks like this:
Our mini-series continues next week!
Author’s note : Images and pictures are free of copyright restrictions.