Joseph: Mensch or Menace?

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

With this week’s Torah portion, we enter the final four (Torah portions, that is) of the Book of Genesis. From here on in, the narrative predominantly follows Joseph and his brothers as their dysfunctional family takes a journey downward—first to the bottom of a low pit and Joseph’s individual captivity, then to the land of Egypt and subsequent collective servitude. Like the prior tales we have studied in Genesis, these stories are rife with challenging family dynamics: young ones favored and spoiled; older ones ignored and defeated; close relatives pitted against one another for profit and personal gain. But, as always, there is much to learn from the text and its interpretive history.      

Joseph’s coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3) and his disturbing dreams of dominating his brothers and father (37:5–11) are surely the best known of the precipitating factors in the brothers’ animosity—and rightfully so, for they portray Joseph as, at best, naïve and self-absorbed; at worst, arrogant and hostile toward his brothers. In the very first apparently innocuous words of Parashat Vayeishev (37:2–4), we find:

This is the family history of Jacob: when Joseph was 17 years old, he would tend the flock alongside his brothers; he was an attendant along with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, and Joseph would bring malicious reports about them to their father. Yet Israel loved Joseph better than his other sons, for he was the son of his old age; he therefore made him a coat of many colors. When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him and could not bear to speak peaceably to him.

Creative commentators over the centuries have mined this short passage for both negative and positive aspects of Joseph’s behavior. The Hebrew of verse 2 is particularly challenging, for where it notes in our translation that Joseph “would tend the flock alongside his brothers,” the actual meaning of the statement could vary significantly depending on how it is read. Various commentaries speak of Joseph “managing” and “educating” his brothers while they were shepherding. All fine and good, but since Joseph was the youngest of the brothers, he would have been teaching those far older and supposedly wiser than himself, so this would no doubt inspire their ire. One modern translation suggests that the verse implies that Joseph “used to lord it over his brothers” (see Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary[Philadelphia: JPS, 1989], p. 255). The hint, here, is that while Joseph may have been watching his family’s sheep, he was also certainly watching his brothers as well, and annoying them greatly in the process. The further detail of Joseph’s bringing reports of their bad behavior to their father certainly did little to create a family atmosphere of love and trust. Without question, the straightforward meaning of the text above tends to suggest the development of an irresolvable enmity between the brothers.

Other commentators, though, look to exonerate Joseph from evil intent, even as they still admit that his actions, unintentionally, led to family discord. One interesting example of this trend comes from the sixteenth century Turkish interpreter, Rabbi Moses Alshech, also known as the Maharam Alshech. He believed that Joseph’s actions in serving the children of his father’s handmaids (Bilhah and Zilpah) had pure and wonderful motives, as we read in his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Torat Moshe:

And perhaps you would say that [what Joseph did] when “he would tend (alongside) his brothers,” was that he would be prideful and enlarge his heart, but not from an abundance of wisdom and talent. It is not this way, for does it not say “he was an attendant along with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah,” i.e., he behaved with them as a boy and served them. And the reason is to teach that he conceived of the children of the handmaids only as the children of his father’s wives, and thus it says: “his father’s wives.” And not just the children of Bilhah, his mother’s handmaid, but also the children of Zilpah. And not only when the four [families] were together, that, incidentally, the children of Bilhah would honor the children of Zilpah, but that each part of the family would honor each other part, and that is why it says: “and the children of Bilhah and the children of Zilpah” [each mentioned separately with the Hebrew direct object signifier (et) repeated indicating two discrete direct objects], and it does not just say “and the children of Bilhah and Zilpah.”

Rabbi Alshech, here, is suggesting that Joseph served and honored even the lowliest members of his father’s family: the children born to the handmaids. In so doing, he worked to bring family unity by raising up those who were in the weakest position. By doing this, ironically, he also lowered himself, for as the son of the most beloved wife, Rachel, Joseph would never have been expected to serve the children of Leah’s handmaid, Zilpah. In an ancient world filled with clan status issues, this suggests a significant overturning of important family status concerns, and would have certainly been of help in bolstering the honor of the individuals of low status within the clan.

But there is a problem, and it follows along the lines of Newtonian physics: every action demands an equal and opposite reaction. If the status of the lowest is raised, then the overall differential in status is narrowed, and, in effect, the status of the highest must therefore be lowered. Even though Joseph may have meant well in his service to the handmaids’ children, this would surely not have won him favor in the eyes of his brothers born of Rachel and Leah, who reveled in their superior status, and did not enjoy anything that threatened it. Thus, in attempting to help those in need, Joseph is perceived as threatening those in power. And those in power wish, fervently, now and always, to retain their status.

The late Edwin H. Friedman,* an insightful therapist and rabbi, wrote that what happens in family systems often parallels and determines what happens in larger organizations. What we can learn from Rabbi Alshech’s reading of Joseph’s actions, is that attempts at morally positive activities can often be seen as threatening when they disrupt well-entrenched social patterns. Instead of leading to useful growth in the family or organization, far too often, they cause conflict as those with status and power frustrate constructive change to preserve their position or the status quo. One implication of this passage: such behavior, inevitably, leads down toward a certain sort of servitude—whether it is Joseph’s pit, or our own inescapable, long-term patterns that hurt rather than heal. One can only hope that as it once happened in Egypt it will happen again: God will hear our cry and redeem us, if we cannot find a way to redeem ourselves.

*See Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation (New York: Guilford Press, 1985) for his book-length development of this fascinating thesis.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

How Do You Choose to Live?

Daver Acher By: Audrey S. Pollack

The story of Joseph and his brothers resonates because its themes are familiar. Certainly there are times when we have found ourselves mired in stuck family systems, when we are estranged from a sibling or realize that our silence has harmed another. There are also times when we cannot help but feel that a loved one has treated us less than favorably. 

When his father Jacob calls to him and asks that he visit his brothers herding the sheep in the north near Shechem, Joseph responds “ ‘Here I am [Hineini],’ ” indicating that Jacob should send him (Genesis 37:13). Joseph does not know that this journey will take him away from his father for twenty-two years. He cannot have imagined that his journey will take him away from everything he knows, to Egypt. He only knows that his father called, and he responds out of love and respect.

When Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams, he can be described as either arrogant or oblivious. He does not seem to be aware of how his words stir up the emotions of his brothers. And his brothers do not seem to respond to what must have been feelings of vulnerability and loss after his mother Rachel’s death. When he is thrown into the pit and carried away, when he is thrown into Pharaoh’s prison, and when he is asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph journeys forward with faith. Joseph’s story and its resolution also ask us to consider how we react and respond to difficulty and challenge. How do we choose to live?

We go about many tasks in our daily lives oblivious to the impact that they have on others. Yet, as Jacob and his son Joseph learn in their struggles, so can we. Each one of us is a messenger from the Most High. How will you choose to live?

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Reference Materials

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 208–232

Originally published: