Vayeishev: Israel as the firstborn

Vayeishev is the first of the last four portions of the book of Genesis, in which the main character is Joseph. There are extensive and intensive debates about the stories told in these portions, because their intricacies shaped the destiny of Israel as a people and as a Nation. These debates among our Sages are mostly centered in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers, and why the events occurred the way they did. The general conclusion is that, no matter how such events happened and their ethical and moral implications, they occurred according to God’s will. We all agree on this because it is one of the Fundamental Principles of Judaism, and there are no “buts” for them.

These events happened to teach us that the free will the Creator gives us, along with individual discernment and the Torah, are intended to make positive choices to honor His ways and attributes as the common likeness between us and Him. Israel’s children indeed knew better under the teachings and guidance of their father. Dealing with lower emotions and passions such as hatred, envy and jealousy, is something that we all must face with the best of our ethical knowledge (Torah learning) and discernment in order to truly exercise our free will.

We have said that the negative aspects of thoughts, emotions, feelings, passion, and instinct are represented by the “nations” we must conquer, eliminate and subjugate through our higher awareness of God’s Love as our Essence and true identity. The Torah tells us that our forefathers were not perfect, and they came to be a Nation under the guidance of the Creator by following His will. This is the “perfection” of Israel as we pursue to be good human beings, according to what the Creator defines for us as good. This definition is widely explained in His Torah, and reaffirmed in God’s attributes of compassion (Exodus 34:6-7).

Discernment was the least of qualities in the development of events between Joseph and his brothers, and there was no clear and direct communication for the sake of the truth. We learn from this that jealousy and envy lead to hatred, and hatred can lead to murder. The same predicament goes for greed, lust, indolence, impatience, cruelty and their derivatives. Let’s reflect on the Torah’s narrative based on our Sages’ debates and conclusions. “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph (…)” (Genesis 37:2).

Joseph is all the descendants of Jacob as the prototype for Israel, because he personifies the qualities that Jacob want for his children. These qualities must rule over the remaining traits of consciousness. In every circumstance experienced by Joseph, he was a ruler (in the house of Potiphar, in the prison where he remained 12 years, in the house of Pharaoh, and over the land of Egypt) as this was predicted in his dreams before he was sold as a slave by his brothers. The controversy over the destined kingship of Judah as one of the reasons to murder Joseph to end his “ruler dreams” must be cleared up under a different perspective.

If Joseph is Israel, all the Tribes must conduct themselves under his traits and qualities, either be priests, kings, warriors, scholars, judges, artists, etc. because of what Joseph represents. We are reminded about the similarities that only Jacob and Joseph shared in their lives and experiences, for us to understand that their physical resemblance was not the only thing that made them equal to each other. This is also the reason why Jacob considered Joseph’s sons his own, and made them into two Tribes. In this sense we understand Joseph as the Firstborn of Israel: “And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons” (37:3), “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers” (37:4), “So his brothers envied him.” (37:11).

These verses make us recall the episode of Cain and Abel, and also the dialogue between the Creator and Cain that teaches us to strive to be better, particularly when we are destined to be the Firstborn. As Israel, we are destined to be the Light for the nations, a Nation of priests, and a Holy People simply because our Creator is Holy. If we chose to be the heirs of His ways and attributes, we have to be and manifest them in order to honor our heritage. We don’t do it by being envious, jealous, coveting or greedy, neither with cruelty, hatred and negative traits that murder Love’s ways and attributes.

We must discern about right and wrong, true and false, useful and useless, and choose Love because that is the legacy of the Creator, tangible and experienced in all His Creation. Our job is to dissipate the darkness we have created in our material reality, and replace it with the original Light with which the world was made. This Light is God’s Love, and as our Essence we must make it prevail. Our Sages say that Jacob loved Joseph with this kind of Love: “Love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6), and that his brothers envied him as “Envy is harsh as the grave” (8:6) then, the Sages ask: What can Love achieve in the face of envy? From this we realize what leads to life and what leads to death; what leads to Light and what leads to darkness.

We know that in the future, which is today, Judah is Israel and this is why we are called Jews. As Jews we fulfill the destiny that the Creator decreed for us in order to proclaim His Kingdom: “For Judah prevailed over [from] his brothers, and the prince comes from him, but the birthright is Joseph’s.” (I Chronicles 5:2). As Judah we are the crown and the scepter to enthrone the Creator, being aware that Joseph is Israel’s essence as our true identity. We can’t fulfill our destiny as a people and as a Nation without honoring our Creator.

About the Author
Ariel Ben Avraham was born in Colombia (1958) from a family with Sephardic ancestry. He studied Cultural Anthropology in Bogota, and lived twenty years in Chicago working as a radio and television producer and writer. He emigrated to Israel in 2004, and for the last fourteen years has been studying the Chassidic mystic tradition, about which he writes and teaches. Based on his studies, he wrote his first book "God's Love" in 2009. He currently lives in Zefat.
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