The tale of Yoseph in this week’s parsha, Vayeishev, includes elements of tragedy, redemption and ultimately triumph. His envious brothers, rather than kill him in anger, are convinced to sell him as a slave, leading him to Egypt. Only through a miracle of God, his gift to interpret dreams, is he saved and made great in the eyes of the whole nation. One understanding of Yoseph’s journey is that he was put through the ordeal of being sold into slavery as part of a divine plan that would allow him to be in a position to ultimately save his brothers, something Yoseph himself alludes to when they are reunited. The brothers are upset and guilty for what they have put him through, but he calms them, assuring them that this was all part of God’s plan as he says in Breishit 45:5:
For [the sake of saving your lives] God sent me before you כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם
Yet, I find this troubling. Would God really put Yoseph through so much suffering and danger just so that he would end up in a position to provide food for his family?
There must be more to Yoseph’s journey than simply being dragged along by destiny or fate.
Yoseph’s dreams, which all turn out to be true, identify him as a future leader, a great leader. But when we first meet Yoseph he is far from “leadership” material. The first thing we see him do when he is a young boy is to spread lies about his brothers in Breishit 37:2:
And Joseph brought evil reports (about his brothers) to their father וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם
He’s a tattletale!
Yoseph was spoiled and guided by his own ego. And so, Rashi explains, he was punished for each one of these lies. His coat was covered in blood from a slaughtered goat, where he had accused his brothers of eating an un-slaughtered goat in an unkosher manner. Yoseph accused his brothers of treating their half-brothers like slaves, so he became a slave himself and, finally, after accusing them of acting immorally, Yoseph was put in a situation where Potiphar’s wife tried to lure him into an inappropriate relationship. Though there is little evidence of these accusations in the text, they reflect the kind of person Yoseph is at this point in his journey, one who is more concerned with currying favor by blaming others rather than putting them first.
Measure for measure, Yoseph was punished by God for his bad qualities, but God was also with Yoseph, supporting him every step of the way as described in Breishit 39:23:
God was with him and whatever he [Yoseph] did, God made successful ה’ אִתּוֹ וַאֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה ה’ מַצְלִיחַ
God wasn’t attempting to punish Yoseph, He was helping him, perhaps forcing him to recognize his own faults and flaws. Yoseph could not lead a people that he could not empathize with. Yoseph saw himself as above everyone, and only when he was forced to live at the lowest levels of society, rotting in jail, could he appreciate what he had and what a real leader needs to be, someone who doesn’t blame others for what happens and someone who cares about what happens to even the lowliest among us.
God could have easily saved our people with a miracle, ending the famine in any number of ways. Instead, He needed Yoseph not just to grow into leadership, but to create a model, a Dugma Ishit, for future generations, of someone who is able to fail, to pick themselves up from the depths of despair and to learn how to become greater than they ever were. Moshe did this, King David did this, the Jewish people have been forced into this path time and again, but with God by our side we can become stronger, we can rise to the challenge to become, through our own struggles, a great nation worthy of being a Kiddush Hashem.
This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.