Parsha Vayeshev – פרשת וישב
Bereshit 37:1 – 40:23
Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and the Rabbi of the „Shirat ha-Jam” congregation in Haifa.
Every person needs hope. Each one of us is searching for light, but the path towards light is not easy.
Parsha Vayeshev opens a cycle of fourteen chapters, out of which all but one describe the lives of Joseph and his brothers. We will accompany them for several decades, during which dramatic changes will take place in the life of each of the protagonists – mental, spiritual, and even geographical changes. For us, their descendants, the stories of the lives of our forefathers are a lesson and an example of good and bad deeds, of wisdom and fear, of action, courage and inaction. They didn’t always know how to reflect on their actions and learn their lessons.
Isaac [loved] Esau… but [Rivka loved] Yaakov. (Bereshit 25:28)
Yet another generation, and the situation repeats itself:
Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons… (Bereshit 37:3).
This is an uncomfortable and embarrassing topic, but contemporary psychologists claim that most parents have their “favorite child”. Why was Joseph loved more than others? He was the son of the beloved wife Rachel. He was a beautiful young man – יפה מראה – yafe mar’e – who later will be admired by Potiphar’s wife. Only two persons in the whole Torah have been described as jafe mar’e – Joseph and his mother Rachel. This is one of the rare instances when the TaNaCh describes the beauty of a man. Maybe his face reminded Yaakov of his first love? Is this why he dresses his son in a colorful tunic? What does it symbolize? Who’d usually wear this kind of garments? We can find the answer to this question in another part of the Tanach. Here is a description of the daughter of king David, Tamar, whose beauty was also extraordinary:
She was wearing an ornamented tunic, for maiden princesses were customarily dressed in such garments.(2 Sam 13:18).
So Yaakov dresses his son in the clothes of maiden princesses. A special fondness for one child has its consequences. And just because we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t show. Midrash Bereshit Raba (4:3) accuses Joseph of unmanly behavior, and Rashi explains that Joseph didn’t help his brothers support their family, but he cared only about himself and his looks. In our parasha we read how he believed in his superiority and told his brothers about his prophetic dreams about him becoming the feature leader of the family. They reacted by hating him and throwing him in a desert pit devoid of any water: “ve-ha-bor rek mi-maim” ( Bereshit 37, 24). According to a Midrash instead of water in the pit there were snakes and scorpions. By stomping his feet maybe he managed to scare them off, or maybe they squeezed his arms and legs as if with chains, so that he froze with fear. Was this a breakthrough moment in his life? It probably felt as if this moment lasted for eternity, but Joseph didn’t lose hope that one of his brothers would take pity on him or that some curious passerby would look into the pit, see a man calling for help and save him. Joseph’s eyes were not turned towards the bottom of that pit nor towards the slippery walls that surrounded him, but rather upwards, towards the light, towards the faint glimmer of hope.
Each story and event described in the Bible carries a message for the next generations, otherwise it wouldn’t be mentioned there. Who among us doesn’t want to get out of a “pit”; we all want to free ourselves from our habits, fears, pride, anger, prejudice, hurt, addiction to success… which stop us from being free persons.
But wanting something is not always enough. Joseph was trying to start a new chapter in his life. Everything was going well, but suddenly the beauty of his face again turns into a misfortune. As a result of Potiphar’s wife’s false accusations he gets twelve years in jail. This would be enough for him to break down, but Joseph doesn’t lose hope for the “light at the end of the tunnel”, he doesn’t go back to “his former self”. When he interprets the dreams of Pharaoh, the meaning of which the sages and priests were not able to understand, there is no trace of pride nor contempt left in him. He humbly says to the Pharaoh: “I am not important, God will give the answer…”
Many people believe that we all have the same personality for our whole life, from the day we’re born and that it will never change. But Joseph’s story conveys a completely different approach – it’s never too late to transform one’s personality, to change into a better human being. Becoming a different person, which is something we dream about, requires from us a lot of hard work, effort, an even a miracle. But Jewish tradition says that a miracle is not something supernatural, but rather a part of our being. Several times a day in the Amidah prayer we repeat that we’re grateful:
„ועל נסיך שבכל יום עמנו, ועל נפלאותיך וטובותיך שבכל עת, ערב ובקר וצהרים”
„ve-al nisecha she-be-chol yom imanu, ve-al nifleotecha ve-tovatecha she-be-chol et, erev va-voker ve-cochoraim” – for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences which are with us at every time, in the evening, in the morning and at noon.
The Festival of Chanukah is almost here. Outside it’s already very dark, but inside our homes the chanukijah will light up with colorful candles. May it be your will… that we always have the ability that Joseph was blessed with – to see the good light, and not the dark corners, to be blessed with this light and to help others find it… May it be your will…. that we don’t renounce hope, even if sometimes it’s hard, that we choose to see the miracles which are with us daily, „erev va-voker ve-cochoraim”. Shabbat Shalom!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka