The plot seems more and more inexplicable each year that we read it. Jacob’s “generations” are described as Joseph in the opening of the portion of Vayeshev. It is astonishing, a familiar and disquieting pattern. The text is quick to try and explain the blatant favoritism by asserting that Joseph was his “child of old age”. Whilst this may have some rationale in relation to the ten older brothers, what about Benjamin? He was even more the child of Jacob’s old age and of his (preferred ) and beloved wife Rachel. You would have thought that the tragic circumstances of his birth would have made him all the more loved if not favored. The profoundly moving account of his naming further underpins this dissonance; 35:18:
וַיְהִ֞י בְּצֵ֤את נַפְשָׁהּ֙ כִּ֣י מֵ֔תָה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ בֶּן־אוֹנִ֑י וְאָבִ֖יו קָֽרָא־ל֥וֹ בִנְיָמִֽין׃
But as she (Rachel) breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni; (Ben-oni “son of my suffering (or, strength).” but his father called him Benjamin.- Son of my right hand, or perhaps my right hand son?!
This is surely quite a significant title, making his total absence in the narrative all the more perplexing.
Ironically, later on in the story Benjamin does receive this attention when Jacob refuses to let the brothers take him down to Egypt at the demand of Joseph to meet him and affirm the brothers claim of having a younger brother (and an elderly father) back in Canaan. Jacob is unable to potentially lose him too. With this fear of him too going missing makes his missing in these actions all the more puzzling.
The image of Benjamin as childlike, passive and almost over-protected is dramatically shattered in the blessing he receives from his father’s deathbed in the closing chapters of Bereishit; 49:27,
בִּנְיָמִין֙ זְאֵ֣ב יִטְרָ֔ף בַּבֹּ֖קֶר יֹ֣אכַל עַ֑ד וְלָעֶ֖רֶב יְחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁלָֽל׃
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
Rashi quoting the Midrash Tanchuma explains the division of spoil as referring to Mordecai and Esther from tribe of Benjamin who will divide the spoil of Haman, as it is said, (Esther 3:7) “Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman”.
We can almost imagine this depiction driving a very different story of anger, jealousy and revenge, where Benjamin, as opposed to his brothers, takes matters into his own hands. We now are forced to see him as not necessarily passive but extremely restrained. The opening scenes of the portion give him all the more reasons for despondency than his brothers, yet he remains missing, in action. Perhaps that is the story! -One of ravishing and conquering his own (understandable) anger. The foundational stories must be read and learned for not only what was recorded as having occurred but perhaps equally importantly what did not.
How incredibly fitting that Benjamin reappears in the story of Purim which is so much about “Hester Panim”, God’s role and presence being concealed, where more is happening backstage than in the parody presented.