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A Terrific Tale Teaches Transformation

Torah Talk on Parshat Vayeshev 5780

In a change of pace and literary emphasis, Joseph will become the principal character of the last four weekly Torah portions in Genesis. Joseph’s story is a more complete narrative than any that has preceded it. This forms a developmental transition from the short vignettes we are accustomed to in Genesis to the long narrative of Moses that begins Exodus and will occupy the rest of the Torah,

The Joseph story has been called the first truly modern piece of literature, filled with contemporary authorial techniques in the delineation of character and plot. Each segment ends in a cliffhanger, and the interplay of story lines and locations make the whole narrative vibrant, rich and exceedingly compelling. This modernity of style is particularly impressive since the book of Genesis was written at least 2500 years ago.

The Joseph narrative stretches through a month of Torah readings. In the weekly portions of Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash and Vayechi we find temptation and cunning, nobility and baseness, carelessness and probity, all juxtaposed and then thoughtfully counterpointed. The foolish gain wisdom. The wicked see the error of their ways. The impulsive learn restraint. And nothing is ever quite so simple as it seems initially.

It is a great story, wonderful writing about fascinating characters.

Joseph is one of the spectacular figures in the entire Bible: brilliant, talented, arrogant, gifted with both remarkable vision and tremendous administrative skill. He is a youth of extraordinary promise who becomes a man of fate and determination, and one who survives enormous trauma to reshape two nation’s intertwined destinies. A remarkably contemporary character, Joseph is a brazen, spoiled boy who transforms into a subtle and deep man. It’s not an easy process, but it begins with a bang in this week’s portion of Vayeshev.

At the commencement of our sedrah Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel has died in childbirth, and in a pained overcompensation Jacob spoils Rachel’s oldest son Joseph, giving him a famous coat of many colors—perhaps it is really an embroidered tunic—and using him as a tattletale spy on his older, tougher brothers. The brothers’ revenge is swift: away from their father’s eye they capture him and sell him into slavery in Egypt, implying to their father that a wild animal has killed him. After adventures that demonstrate Joseph’s newfound virtue—and spectacularly bad luck—this week’s portion ends with Joseph stuck in an Egyptian prison, his father Jacob back in Canaan mourning his supposed death, and all hope seemingly lost.

There are two central messages in Vayeshev. The first we have heard in Genesis earlier, but it is now reiterated poignantly: our children are all precious. Favoring the “good” one does no one any good. Treat each with love—as though, in fact, each of our children was truly an only child in receiving our love. That’s the Jewish way to parent successfully.

The second and greatest abiding message of the Joseph story is that God’s plan will work, but we aren’t always party to why or how long it will take. Transformation, moral and intellectual, must first occur. We struggle and sometimes suffer in order to learn what we probably should have known from the first: that God is the true source of all good, and of all understanding.

For Joseph, his brothers and his father, wisdom will prove to be hard-won. Perhaps, in reading Vayeishev, we can learn from their mistakes, and so avoid the dramatic reverses of this great story. And then we ourselves may gain the wisdom to grow and change for the better.

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