Parashat Vayeishev introduces the Joseph saga. When it begins, Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, is a 17-year-old shepherd working in the fields alongside his older brothers. The text’s description of him as a “youth,” na-ar, is apt, both biologically and emotionally. As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes: “Joseph behaves with the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others” (Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: JPS,1995], p. 253). He consciously tells Jacob malicious tales about the brothers and by wearing the beautiful, multicolored coat (or ornamental tunic) that Jacob has given him, flaunts the fact that he is the favorite son. It is thus not surprising that when Joseph’s brothers see that their father loves him more than they, they come to hate Joseph (Genesis 37:4).
The medieval rabbis Rashi and Nachmanides (Ramban) excuse Joseph’s behavior because of his youth, citing variations on midrashim such as B’reishit Rabbah 84:7, which describes Joseph as “penciling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel” to emphasize that which W. Gunther Plaut describes as Joseph’s “youthful extravagance” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [NY:URJ, 2005], p. 246). The nasty stories that Joseph tells Jacob about his brothers may well be true and his tale-telling, like his flaunting his appearance, expressions of childishness. Or such outrageous tales may only selectively be true and thus ill-intended. In one Rabbinic midrash, for example, after Joseph tells Jacob that his brothers are eating limbs torn from living animals (which may be true), God rebukes him for not telling Jacob the full story, which is that while the brothers act wrongly when eating a limb torn from a living animal, Joseph knows that even in the act of wrongdoing, they will slaughter the animal ritually, in accordance with God’s commands (B’reishit Rabbah 84:7).
Joseph’s early use of his gift to interpret dreams is similarly immature. The ways in which he describes their content reveal an egocentrism and indifference to the feelings of others that make the young Joseph a difficult figure to admire. When, for example, he tells his brothers about a dream of his in which they were all in a field tying up sheaves of wheat, when his rose and stood up straight while their sheaves paraded around and subsequently bowed down to his, it is no wonder that his brothers “hated him all the more for his dreams and for his words” (Genesis 37:8). Even more so, when he tells the brothers that he dreamt of the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him, his brothers come to detest him, for even before he provides an interpretation, Jacob, who is also a dream interpreter, rebukes Joseph for insinuating that one day he, Rachel (Joseph’s mother), and the brothers would have to “bow down to the ground before” him (Genesis 37:10). It is thus understandable that after Reuben convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph, as they initially planned to do, they agree to seize him, remove the coat that he had flaunted before them, throw Joseph into an empty pit without water, and sell him to the Ishmaelites as a slave. The Ishmaelites then take Joseph down to Egypt where they sell him to Potiphar, one of the officers of the Pharaoh (Genesis 37:28-36).
Yet after Joseph is put in prison for sexually assaulting Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:11-20), an accusation that appears to be untrue, Joseph undergoes a significant change. For the first time, the biblical text describes God as being with Joseph. It is God’s kindness that leads the prison warden to look favorably upon all that Joseph does, consequently appointing him as chief overseer (Genesis 39:21-22). Presumably, it is God’s constant presence that gives Joseph a maturity and sense of humility that previously he did not possess. Thus, when the Pharaoh’s imprisoned cupbearer (chief butler) and baker come to Joseph to interpret their dreams, Joseph first says: “Surely interpretations are in God’s domain; but go ahead and tell them to me” (Genesis 40:8). And when they tell him their dreams, he interprets them truthfully and, it turns out, accurately with the self-aggrandizement of the past gone. To the cupbearer, whose dream, Joseph says, foretells his being restored in three days to his former position, Joseph simply requests that when all goes well for him he remember Joseph and ask Pharaoh to release him.
As author Leon Kass observes, Jacob’s anointing of the 17-year-old Joseph as his favorite was unsound. “For even if Joseph possessed the political virtues needed to rule,” Kass writes, “it still would have been virtually impossible successfully to impose a leader upon the other brothers … Before they can accept him, a leader of equals must first prove himself to them and gain their voluntary assent to his ascendancy” (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis [NY, NY: Free Press, 2003], p. 515). Self-centered, immature, and at times mean-spirited, Joseph does not yet display sufficient leadership qualities. It is only later, after experiencing the negative consequences of his words and actions towards his brothers, opening himself up to God’s presence when in prison (although it is unclear whether he is aware that God is with him), and using his gift as an interpreter of dreams not to uninvitingly boast about his superiority but to thoughtfully and honestly help others learn about their future, that Joseph begins to show himself worthy of becoming a leader. “In the text’s initial portrait of him,” observes Kass, “Joseph stands out not for his wisdom regarding human beings but for his dreams” (p. 515). By the end of this week’s parashah, Joseph appears wiser, though naïve. The cupbearer forgets to speak to the Pharaoh about Joseph. Thus, “learning from his mistaken trust in the butler’s gratitude, next time,” notes Kass, “Joseph will take matters into his own hands” (p. 561). It is only then that Joseph actually will become a leader.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.