In parashat VaYeshev, Yosef relates his famous dreams to his brothers and father, engendering jealousy and hatred. The brothers plot to kill him, but sell him into slavery instead. They lie to their father Yaakov, dipping Yosef’s tunic in blood, breaking Yaakov’s heart. Yosef’s entire life is a roller-coaster of ascents and descents. He begins life as his father’s favored child, and then descends into slavery. He is elevated to chief steward in his master Potiphar’s household, and then descends even lower to prison as a result of his master’s wife fabricating an attempted rape.
In the meantime, while Yosef was being sold, the Torah simultaneously tells the tale of his brother Yehuda and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Yehuda denied Tamar permission to marry his youngest son, since the two older siblings both died after marrying her. To protest, Tamar disguised herself and seduced Yehuda. She subsequently gave birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach. The result of an incestuous union, Peretz turns out to be the ancestor of King David!
These events intensify the rhythms of Yosef’s life. That life has turned out to become a journey of twists and turns. His pathway of events has ironically led to seductions that have turned into future blessings, hatreds that will turn into resolutions, lies that will lead to truths, enslavement that will produce food and sustenance, and descents that will propel Yosef into a position of unmitigated power. In jail, Yosef interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s two stewards, the butler and the baker. The butler’s dream is fortuitous, while the baker is executed. Yosef pleads with the butler to put in a good word for him, but, as the tragedy of human frailty would have it, he forgets Yosef. Seductions, disguises, cruelty, enslavement, murderous jealousy, sibling hatred, mendacity–this parasha contains all of these deeply challenging, painful human experiences. Together, they form a tortuous path for the young, narcissistic Yosef to follow. (Rashi has Yosef strutting in front of his brothers like the self-absorbed adolescent he was, twirling his hair, infuriating everyone.)
The only reality that Yosef saw were the external contours of his immediate experiences. He saw himself constantly victimized, sold into slavery and then sold into jail; the word bor means both the cistern into which his brothers hurled him, and the jail in which he was incarcerated. He saw himself forgotten and abandoned, just as his brother Yehuda only saw the harlot in front of him and not his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Yet, all the while, there is another roadmap, an internal pathway that emerges slowly throughout these events, one that Yosef cannot yet see but must learn to navigate. The events in Yosef’s life weave a tapestry whose patterns Yosef must come to discern by learning to look inward more than outward. His wisdom comes from that acquired interiority.
For example, when Potiphar bought Yosef as a slave, the Torah describes Yosef as a “successful man,” ish matzliach. How could Yosef see himself that way?! Yet, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, the 18th century grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, wrote these comments in his work, Degel Machane Ephraim, explaining the significance of calling Yosef, “successful” in the very moment he was being sold into slavery:
This phrase, ish matzliach, suggests how one exhibits an awareness of God “every step along the path of one’s life,” [no matter what happens.] (Proverbs 3:6) For example, were some source of pleasure to come to a person, that person in that moment would have an awareness of the root and source of pleasure in general, and realize all sources of pleasure flow from that source. The person would realize that the hidden source of all life generates the life-energy that flows through everything, and that this moment of pleasure came from that same source. Once the person realizes this, infusing his consciousness completely, the physical manifestations of that pleasure become nullified [since they are merely the external manifestations of the deeper source of life from which all experiences flow.] This is precisely what the phrase, “and Hashem was with Yosef” means. …Yosef learned to attach himself only to interiority (i.e. to “see with his inner eye”) and to the root of everything that happens. In the phrase, “Yosef was a successful man,” ish matzliach, the word, “matzliach,” successful, means “to cross over,” as in the verse, וְצָלְח֥וּ הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ, “v’tzalchu et hayarden lipne hamelech, “they crossed the Jordan river before the king. (II Shemuel 19:18) In other words, Yosef was transformed; [he crossed over from a man of externalities to a person of interiority.]
What I infer from this deeply mystical commentary is that Yosef moves from being a narcissistic adolescent twirling his hair to becoming an introspective person. As such, he can interpret dreams and recognize that those interpretations ultimately come from God. His ability to interpret dreams enables him to interpret the events that led to his sale and imprisonment. R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim is implying that Yosef understood that his wisdom, his capabilities, his position, his circumstances, the quality of his relationship with his brothers, and his yearnings for his father over the years, all came from God. Once one gains this awareness, humility follows, and the person no longer acts only out of self-interest and personal gain.
Something happens to a person when they look inwards more than outwards, and come to understand that the inner topography of life charts a deeper reality. That is the language that Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim uses in the Degel Machane Ephraim: “an awareness that informs every step along the pathway of one’s life.” It is not that oppression, falsehood, cruelty, violence, bias, avarice, mendacity, and arrogance are figments of one’s imagination. A cursory glance at any of the atrocious events unfolding all around us here in America, throughout Europe and Asia, in the Middle East and painfully in Israel reveals human suffering as a result of biases, fear, and abuses of power. Shootings of people of color abound. LGBTQ people remain threatened and continuous victims of violence. Women throughout the world remain dangerously vulnerable to violent attack and abuse. We the Jewish people have found ways to reestablish ourselves as a sovereign majority in the land of Israel, and to protect ourselves from annihilation at the hands of enemies. However, we also have responsibilities along with our power, and the Jewish people have failed to find ways to dignify and protect Palestinians–for that is precisely what the Torah tradition requires of us: to dignify and protect vulnerable minority populations.
Yosef is the first character in the family of Avraham and Sarah to look inward consciously. The narrative of his life elevates interior pathways as the preeminent concern of Jewish spiritual identity. The story of Yosef suggests that while the entire Tanakh narrates our sacred history as a journey from the Garden of Eden to the land of Israel, the roadmap for that journey is not primarily about a physical place. It is primarily about an inner road, an interior journey and landscape that can only be properly manifested in a physical space, but not dependent on it. That is why our people continuously return to exile–because once we forget the markers of our journey, we have to regroup as a minority culture and relearn the lessons of compassion, kindness, humility and faith in order to find our way back. On the verse from Proverbs, they crossed the Jordan river before the king, David Altschuler, 17th-18th c. Prague, wrote in his commentary, Metzudat David, “…they crossed the river like servants of the king.” That is precisely how Yosef came to see himself, spiritually. His experiences transformed him, because they turned him inward. “Crossing the river” is a metaphor for his inner transformation. It is as if he learned to say to himself, “I am here to serve. In whatever capacity and situation I find myself, my task in the world is to serve. If I acquire power, I shall use that power to serve and not to abuse, to nourish and not to manipulate, to support and not to extort.” This spirit is captured in the Midrash Tanchuma. Wondering how Potiphar knew that Yosef had a spiritual awareness of God and looked inwards, the rabbis taught:
How did the wicked Potiphar recognize, that the Holy One, blessed be God, was with him?…The name of the Holy One, blessed be God, never left Yosef’s lips. When Yosef entered to serve Potiphar, he would whisper to himself: “Master of the Universe, you are the One in whom I trust; you are the One who is my protector, may I find grace, kindness, and mercy in your sight, and in the sight of all who see me, (italics mine) and in the eyes of my master, Potiphar.” Potiphar asked him: “What are you whispering about?…Yosef replied, “I am praying that I may find favor in your sight.” Hence it is written: And his master saw that the Lord was with him. (Bereshit 39:8)
Yosef prays that all human beings will look at him and recognize kindness, compassion, and grace. His inner hopes started to drive his outer behaviors. In the spirit of Chanukkah, the time to shed light upon dark world and actualize the power of miracles, may the day come when our behaviors as a nation merit all the people of the world looking at us and declaring: “What a people filled with grace, kindness and mercy.”
Shabbat Shalom & Happy Chanukkah