Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It was red and yellow and green and brown and...

20 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 22-23, 2013

This week’s portion, Vayeshev, contains a significant chunk of the Joseph narrative.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, and the wearer of a “coat of many colors.”  He also had a knack for having vivid dreams, and then sharing them with his siblings – even if their content was sure to enrage them.  Needless to say, he was young and immature.

His siblings harbor such hate for him (some of that is on Jacob for playing favorites to be sure) that they conspire to kill him, until eldest bother Reuben intercedes on his behalf.  The brothers settle on throwing Joseph into a pit, and when Reuben leaves, they sell him as a slave to passing travelers and lead their father to believe that a wild animal killed him.

Joseph ends up a servant in Egypt to a powerful man named Potiphar, and is given a considerable amount of power and influence in the home.  Potiphar’s wife notices Joseph’s talents and pursues hard.  Upon repeatedly being rejected, she falsely accuses him of attempted rape, and he ends up in jail.

And yet even in jail, he is given significant responsibilities by the guards, and has the chance to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler respectively (which turns out great for the butler, and poorly for the baker).  His one request to the butler was to remember him once he was reinstated in Pharaoh’s court – which the butler fails to do.

Also in this portion is a seemingly random interlude between Judah (one of Jacob’s sons) and his daughter in law Tamar, who tricks him into knocking her up (he thought she was a lady of the night…).  In the end, Judah takes responsibility for his actions and shortcomings.

I can’t help but be struck by the amazing juxtaposition between last week’s portion, where Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi slaughter an entire town’s male population in order to defend their sister’s honor, and this week’s, where they, along with their brothers, are prepared to kill their own brother!  Joseph may have been an incredibly annoying little brother who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, but there’s nothing in the text that suggests the desire to kill him was a rational response on the part of his brothers. Where does their intense hatred come from?  Did they find thrill in their previous killings, and crave more bloodshed?  If so, why didn’t they simply kill Joseph when Reuben left, rather than selling him into slavery?  And how could they live with themselves, knowing what they had done, and knowing the incredible pain they had caused their father?

One of the most frustrating portions of the narrative to me is that the story closely follows the adventures of Joseph after he is sold, but doesn’t tell us much about what’s going on with the brothers, until many years later when we learn there’s a famine in the land (and ultimately, they are reunited).  In some ways, that’s why it’s almost refreshing to have the Judah and Tamar interlude included in this week’s portion (as weird as it is) – to remind us that there were 11 other brothers who each had their own life trials and tribulations leading up to (spoiler alert!) the eventual reconciliation with Joseph in Egypt.  The brothers had to grow up themselves before they would be able to pass Joseph’s tests, and as a result of passing, have their lives spared from starvation. 

Joseph too had to grow up, and demonstrates his maturity by noting the overarching Divine plan that while not great for him personally at times, allowed for his entire family to be saved.

We are all, as human beings, on our own unique paths.  Some of us grow up more quickly than others.  Some need more time to develop.  Some need to get anger and hatred out of their systems.  In the end, we need to respect the process of the journey, own up to our shortcomings, acknowledge that we all have room to grow, and trust that things will fall into place. 

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