The Most Painful Parts of Joseph’s Story Can Teach Us about Ourselves

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Michael Dolgin

The Story of Joseph is the longest single story in the Torah and one of the most famous narratives found in the entire Hebrew Bible. This text has inspired many traditional and modern commentaries and additional interpretations though contemporary culture. While these presentations offer the core story of Joseph and his brothers, they rarely address its darker reality: It is a cautionary tale about ignoring family matters and the disastrous results.

While much is made of Joseph’s coat of many colours, it is a unique gift to the eleventh of 12 sons and one that reeks of favouritism. Favoritism has been a factor in nearly every generation in the Book of Genesis: Cain vs. Abel, Ishmael vs. Isaac, Esau vs. Jacob, and Leah vs. Rachel. Jacob endured the pain of such irresponsible behaviour, and yet, as we see in Parashat Vayeishev, he repeats the mistake by which he himself was victimized.

Yes, Joseph is the central character of this story, but this tale is based on the rhythms and realities of Jacob’s life. His name, Ya’akov, means “the one who follows the crooked path.” Jacob rarely deals with matters directly; his passive nature was established as he stood before his visually challenged father in his brother’s clothes at the direction of his mother. As we see in his relationship to his son, behaviour patterns are often difficult to break.

In the beginning of Vayeishev, we learn of Joseph’s famous dreams and the powerful animosity that grew among his brothers – animosity that would be prevalent in any family under these circumstances. What was Jacob’s response? “And his brothers envied him; but his father kept the matter in mind” (Genesis 37:11). His reaction was to guard the matter; or perhaps, more honestly, to save himself from the truth of the situation that he had allowed to grow. The truth does not wilt when we hide it in the dark; it remains. We cannot wish it away or keep ourselves or those we love insulated from harsh realities.

In a family or other intimate system, it is too easy to let painful realities grow. We often choose not to directly address difficult topics. However, while it may seem risky to address longstanding difficulties and animosities, the alternative may be far worse.  Consider an often-ignored detail of Joseph’s story: While his brothers considered ending Joseph’s life with their own hands, they were not willing or able to do so. Instead, “they took him, and cast him into the pit – and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread…” (Genesis 37:24-25)

After the brothers threw Joseph into a hole in the wilderness with no water, leaving him to die, they sat down at the top of that natural prison and had lunch. Rabbi Ovadia Seforno indicates as much: “In their eyes, they did not see this as an obstacle or barrier to them having a full meal together.” Their hatred of their brother had fashioned their character so deeply that they could not see that feasting while their brother starved and prepared to die was cruel.

According to Seforno, they convinced themselves that Joseph was a rodef, a pursuer, and Jewish law allows for protecting our own lives in self defense. However, when someone actively seeks to wound or kill us, we may strike that person down. Joseph’s brothers seem to take advantage of this teaching; in their minds, their younger brother is a mortal threat, when in fact he was likely an annoyance, the product of unhealthy parenting behaviours and his own bad choices.

The p’shat (surface meaning) Torah commentator Malbim says it plainly: The brothers saw themselves as tzaddikim; everything they did was right and righteous simply because they did it. When Jacob was careless, selfish, and thoughtless in his parental actions, he planted the seeds of arrogance and hatred in his children. In Malbim’s commentary, however, we also see the tonic for this illness: humility. If we wish to live in a healthier society and family, we must challenge ourselves to grow rather than judge others. We need to see the beauty created in every human being, including those who are difficult for us, and embrace the growth needed in ourselves.

May the painful elements of the story of Joseph inspire us to look at our lives, and ourselves, anew.