Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Parshat VaYeshev

Yoseph: The Fourth Patriarch

The early story of Yoseph has got to be the most upsetting parsha in the Torah. We must examine the motive of the brothers.

A law in Devarim states that when a father has two wives, "he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born ahead of the son of the hated, who is the first-born" (Devarim21:16).

Nevertheless, that didn't stop Avraham (indeed God) from passing over Yishmael in favor of Yitschak. Nor did it stop Yaakov from taking the birthright from Esav, a move confirmed by Yitschak.

Reuven tried to establish his hegemony over the birthright by taking Bilha, but Yaakov did not approve. So too, Shimon and Levy, and quite possibly Leah's other sons, have dissapointed Yaakov over their actions in Shechem. Furthermore, they are the children of the "hated" wife. Is their destiny to be the same fate as Yishmael, Avraham's four other sons, and Esav? Will they too be sent away. We know that the answer is no, but they didn't.

What's more, the odds seem to be against them. Yoseph is the son of Rachel, Yaakov's favorite wife and: "his brothers saw that their father loved him more" (Bereshit 37:4). Yaakov is also setting Yoseph aside for leadership: "he made him a fine woolen coat" (ibid 3) and Yoseph seems to be taking on that role naturally by giving him reports as to their behaviour.

Additionally, Yoseph is having dreams, just as Yaakov and the other Patriarchs had. Are these dreams just dreams or are they communications with God about his destiny? Finally, the content of the dreams (and Yoseph's interpretation) suggest that Yoseph will be the inheritor of the Abrahamic covenant.

Notice, how the brothers' hatred develops into jealousy.
  • "they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully" (ibid 4)
  • "Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they hated him more" (ibid 5)
  • "they hated him even more on account of his dreams and on account of his words" (ibid 8)
  • "his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind" (ibid 11)

First they hate him, because of Yaakov's favoritism. Once Yoseph starts having dreams, i.e. possible communications with God, they hate him more. When he starts interpreting the dreams (i.e. "on account of his words") and proclaiming his leadership, their hatred grows further. However, once Yoseph tells Yaakov the dream and Yaakov confirms it ("kept the matter in mind"), the brothers begin to envy him.

Their envy suggests that they now believe that Yoseph supercedes them. Up until now, the brothers could hope that Yoseph's tales were the reports of a spoiled child who will eventually be brought down to earth. However, they now know that that is not the case. Yoseph is now a threat to them as they appear to be excluded from the covenant.

With this in mind, they now work on trying to remove that threat.

Their's and Yoseph's mistake is that they did not know that dreams were about the short-term and not a long-term destiny. The dreams were a prophecy about a not too distant future encounter in Egypt and not about Yoseph becoming the Fourth Patriarch with the brothers being nothing.


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