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Caught In Between

Vayeshev 5780 / 21 December 2019

December 26, 2019

I’ve never had a lot of sympathy or patience for Joseph. The Torah introduced his character by describing his favorite pastime as ויבא את דבתם רעה אל אביהם, “He brought bad reports about his brothers to their father.”Joseph’s brothers’ apparent desire to murder him shocks us – appropriately so – but really, can you blame them? For sure, things got out of hand, and I’m not at all suggesting that what they did to him was OK – still, Joseph kind of had it coming. I mean, Jacob sends him to go find out what his brothers are up to in the pasture and he wears the striped cloak that symbolizes their father’s favoritism? 

And those dreams. You can’t blame a guy for having obnoxious, self-aggrandizing dreams, but when you wake up in the morning only a complete jerk rushes to go tell everybody else, “Listen to this dream I had about how I’m so much better than you!” Joseph is vain, 2 insufferably self-righteous, and often displays an almost complete lack of self-awareness about his behavior. And then, despite all of that, he gets to be the favorite over and over again: his father’s favorite. The boss servant in Potiphar’s house. The model inmate in the prison. Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Ugh.

To be fair, I can see where he gets it. Even by age seventeen, when parashat Vayeshev picks up the story, he’s had a rough time. He loses his mother at a young age, when she dies during childbirth delivering his only full brother – leaving him outnumbered in a family that is fraught with conflict and anything but gentle. The opening verses of our parashah emphasize his gravitating toward the sons of the concubines Bilhah and Zilpah rather than Leah’s sons, his ostensible peers; it would seem that he felt less than welcome among his brothers and had an easier time hanging out with other kids who were marginalized, albeit for different reasons.

And while his father definitely favored him – the Torah makes that abundantly clear – it seems to me that Jacob is more likely trying to soothe his own grief over Rachel through his treatment of Joseph and, ultimately Benjamin. At a minimum Jacob fails to see how his partiality ripples through the family, but I think it also has a deeply harmful effect on Joseph in particular. I’m sure he enjoyed the privileges and attention, or at least convinced himself he did; still, did he also sense that his father never really saw him for himself, instead viewing him as some shadow-reflection of his departed mother? How did that awareness shape Joseph’s personality and way of living? And so his subconscious compensates with dream visions of ultimate superiority and Joseph, rather than pushing back against his own erasure, yields to and ultimately feeds the imbalanced emotional dynamics within the family.

In the end Joseph will look back on his life as having been one long, if bumpy, road toward divinely-ordained blessing – but we don’t actually hear him say anything like that along the way. While the narrator mentions God’s protecting Joseph in Egypt, Joseph himself doesn’t mention God until fairly late in the game, only once he meets Pharaoh’s butler and baker in prison and interprets their dreams. Indeed, the Torah gives us a lot of detail about Joseph’s actions and behavior but offers precious little insight into his thoughts or feelings until he is reunited with his brothers decades after they betray him. 

We do get one tiny, tantalizingly subtle hint to look a little closer. In general, Torah portions don’t leave much suspense; episodes wrap up neatly before the parsha ends, and a new story starts up the following week. Not so with the Joseph stories. For these weeks, unusually, the stories end with cliff-hangers – this week when we leave Joseph in prison, with the last thing we hear being that the butler has forgotten his promise to Joseph, and next week after Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, frames Benjamin and leaves the family in peril. The Torah’s deviation from its usual pattern of resolving stories begs us to wonder about what’s happening in the midst of the saga – what is Joseph feeling in these moments of suspense? 

“It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are,” Flannery O’Connor observed, “But the little it takes is long in coming.”3 This week I’ve wondered if Joseph ever came to see the role his own behavior played in his troubles – the impact of his sense of entitlement and self-absorption on his family; how he rubbed salt in his brothers’ wounded feelings around their father’s favoritism; how, after ascending from base slavery to a position of esteem and privilege in Potiphar’s house, his vanity left him vulnerable to Potiphar’s wife and led to yet another downfall. I don’t mean to blame the victim – Joseph’s brothers, and Jacob especially, have their own culpability, and life was never going to be easy for Joseph – but Joseph’s early behavior didn’t do himself any favors.

Prison changes Joseph; beginning with the baker and butler, he ascribes his successes and insight to God and declines to take credit for himself. We’re left to wonder at how it all happens – the Torah never tells us how Joseph changes from the arrogant young boy of parashat Vayeshev to the mature, humble leader of Mikketz and eventually the gracious, forgiving brother of parashat Vayehi. What intrigues me so much about this question is that I don’t know that we see ourselves any more clearly than we see Joseph. I can look back on the last five years, or ten, or twenty, and see growth and change that I couldn’t perceive at the time. And yet except in the most general ways, I can’t articulate what changes are happening now, in the moment. It’s as if we’re always living just past the horizon of our vision, launching ourselves toward the future, without exactly being able to steer.

That’s the piece I was missing in Joseph all these years. We see him as a young man, and there’s not a lot to like; we see him as a mature adult, dignified and thoughtful, and on the surface it seems like he just gets a pass on his earlier bad behavior. This week, reading the parashah, I kept coming back to that last verse: וְלֹֽא־זָכַ֧ר שַׂר־הַמַּשְׁקִ֛ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵֽהוּ, “The chief butler did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” How dark life must have seemed for Joseph, in prison, forgotten by the person who had promised to come back for him! I imagine Joseph, awake at night thinking about the chain of circumstances that led him from his father’s home, to slavery in Egypt, to prison, and asking himself what he might do differently if he got one more chance. 

Joseph gets his chance, and I think that’s part of the Torah’s message as well. We’ll all get another chance, rarely an exact do-over of the last situation but still a chance to try again and maybe take things in a different direction. But that’s next week; this week we leave Joseph in prison, sitting with his thoughts. It’s a place we all end up sometimes. At least, parashat Vayeshev teaches us, we have some company.

1Gen. 37:2.

2Rashi, Gen. 37:2, 39:6.

3Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, ed. with introduction by W. A. Sessions (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 20.