Vayeishev – Genesis 37:1 to 40:23: The saga of Joseph introduces us to the 1st Jew in Diaspora. His action provide many insights into creating a life outside of his native home. ——————
“This is the family history of Jacob, when Joseph was 17 years old, he would tend the flock alongside his brothers…. Yet Israel loved Joseph better than his other sons, for he was to him the son of his old age; he therefore made him a coat of many colors. When his brothers saw that he was the one that their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him and could not bear to bear to speak peaceably to him.”(Gen. 17:1-4)
Even though the parsha begins with a reference to Jacob, and states that he settled in Canaan… this is not the direction of the story. It’s about Jacob’s sons, Joseph in particular, with a short digression that tells of Judah and Tamar. This parsha and the following three relate of the story of Joseph and his life in Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers.
Joseph is the fourth generation in the Abraham/Isaac/Jacob line. Yet he is not considered a patriarch. He is often referred to as a “tzadik” – a righteous man. “The chief argument in favor of his being called a tzadik is drawn from the climax of the story of the wife of Potiphar, whose temptations he firmly resisted.” (Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images, as quoted in Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p, 97)
Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan, (Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, MI) in an article on the Jewish Reconstructionist web site states that this four parshot Joseph saga is a bridge between the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period to the nation building period that is the core of the rest of Torah.
He also notes that, unlike Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Joseph does not have any direct conversations with God. In fact, God has very little presence in the entire Joseph story. However, it is implied that God is acting to guide events. This is hinted at when we look at the common technique in rabbinic Midrash that uses a word or a phrase in Torah to connect events to one another. “Hineni” is such a word. We find its use when both Abraham and Moses are called upon to make their life-changing journeys. “Hineni” also appears in the Joseph saga when Israel calls his son Joseph to locate his brothers. “Surely your brothers are tending the flock at Shechem [by now]. Come, let me send you to them.” Joseph replied, “Hineni” – Here I am…. Or, it can be translated to mean …. I am ready “Israel then said to him, ‘Pray go see how your brothers are, and how the flock is doing, and bring me back word.’” (Gen. 37:13-14) Rabbi Pik-Nathan feels that by responding with the word “Hineni,” Joseph, like Abraham and Moses, is aware that at some level he is responding to God. It should also be noted that Jacob is called Israel in these passages. As noted in our study session last week, the use of the name Israel often denotes a spiritual event.
Even though God is not mentioned, it is implied that God has some responsibility for Joseph’s dreams … dreams that change the direction of his life.
Then, at the end of the saga Joseph states that God was a major part of the events. When Joseph’s brothers show their fear of possible harm from Joseph because of their acts, Joseph says: “Have no fear, for I am in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive numerous people.” (Gen. 50:19-20) …. Sorry for giving away the end of the story….
Another major difference between the patriarchs and Joseph is the fact that Joseph adopts the manners and customs of his new home. He adopts their speech, dress, and even marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest. However, he retains his faith in God and the beliefs of his birth family. Because of this, I see Joseph as a model for the Jew in Diaspora. Even though he is separated from his family… his people … and adopts the ways of his new country, his actions are still based upon his beliefs.
In many ways the Joseph story speaks to us as Jews in the Diaspora, it offers an example of an individual who became successful while holding on to his basic beliefs without any direct contact with his God. It is the story of an individual who, when called to action, was ready …. He answered his call with Hineni – I am here – I am ready.
All Torah quotations appear in Blue type and are from The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Gunther Plaut, Editor; Revised Edition