Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Parashat Miketz 5759/1998-- Shabbat Hanukah
Joseph and His Brothers: The Point of the Story
Prof. Yehudah Elitzur (of blessed memory)
(Department of Bible)
In order to understand the events in this week's reading one must first recognize that the family of the patriarchs was not a family in the modern sense of the word. It was an entire clan with hanikhim or "retainers" (cf. Gen. 14:14), ne'arim or "servants" ("nothing but what my servants have used up," Gen. 14:24), and ahim or "kinsmen" ("And Jacob said to his kinsmen," Gen. 31:46); it had allies, was likely to go to war and make treaties, and had servants who dug wells. In short, it was the beginnings of an entire nation.
Reuben's sin -- "Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine" (Gen. 35:22)-- should be understood in this context. It was not that he violated the laws on permissible sexual relationships, but as Jacob put it, that he was "unstable as water," (Gen. 49:4), trying to seize something before its time, as in Ahithophel's counsel to Absalom, "Have intercourse with your father's concubines" (II Sam. 16:21). Joseph's "coat of many colors," according to the plain sense of the text, was not simply a father's way of pampering the child of his old age with a fine woolen garment, but was royal garb like that mentioned in the story of Amnon and Tamar: "a coat of many colors, for maiden princesses were customarily dressed in such garments" (II Sam. 13:18). Likewise, "And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father" (Gen. 37:2) does not refer to a child tattling on his brothers, but to a supervisor submitting his report. Joseph, having been made the manager, reported to his father: Today Judah worked well, Naphtali goofed off, Levi did not show up at all.
The Point of the Story
Why does Scripture go into this story in such depth and detail? Surely the purpose of the story is to inform us how our ancestors happened down to Egypt! So why does Scripture have to dwell on this degeneration in sibling relations, revealing the shame of Jacob's sons in such detail? Bringing bad reports, telling dreams, the father berating his son, sitting down to a meal, dipping the tunic in blood, Reuben making his suggestions and Judah giving his opinion. Why does every Jewish child, in each generation, have to receive such a unkind picture of his ancestors?
The encounter with the group that declared themselves the true heirs of Judaism and its Torah can perhaps sharpen the question and shed light on the issue. Each year, in the same season when Jews read Va-Yeshev, Miketz and Va-Yigash, when they struggle to understand the nature of Jacob's sons -- jealousy, selling Joseph, slavery, and nonrecognition -- the Christians celebrate the birth of the person whom they claim to be the son of G-d as well as G-d Himself. That person is perfect beyond words; he knows no sin. Our Scriptures, the eternal "Old" Testament, teach us, in contrast, what was later put succinctly in Solomon's prayer and Kohelet: "For there is no man who does not sin" (I Kings 8:46; Kohelet 7:20).
The Torah brings out the character of the group of people chosen to be the core from which "the people close to G-d" would issue, precisely by showing their shortcomings and how they came to terms with them. Here, as in the story of David and Bathsheba, Scripture tells of righteous, good people, who had grievous failings. What, then, differentiates the righteous from the wicked? Scripture goes into such detail precisely in order to show the difference between the righteous person who sins and fails and the wicked.
Joseph was blessed with tremendous administrative talent, actually destined to run an entire empire, yet he was well liked by all his superiors. Naturally he stood out among his brothers, and at age seventeen he dressed like a manager and oversaw the work of people far older than he, people who themselves were of no small consequence. How could fierce jealousy have failed to develop here? The brothers had been spending many hard days out tending the flocks far from home, when along came their young upstart of a brother, well-coiffed and shined, wearing his ornamental tunic. In a moment of ardent emotion Reuben, the main one threatened, tried to return the lad to his father. When his plan failed and their plot was about to be carried, Judah, leader of the brothers, said, "what do we gain by killing our brother?" (Gen. 37:2).
The brothers felt remorse their entire lives: "we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us" (Gen. 42:21); "What is this that G-d has done to us?" (Gen. 42:28). Later a situation arose very much like the former one: the father's favoritism continued, the brothers had the same weaknesses, but this time Benjamin was the test. Judah and his brothers passed this test: "G-d has uncovered the crime of your servants" (Gen. 44:16); "Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy" (Gen. 44:33). There is no righteous person who never sins, but observe how the righteous are when they sin. Such types are worthy of being the ancestors of the chosen people.
The detailed description of these events provides protection against undermining monotheism. Only the Creator is entirely righteous and there is none like Him. Human beings all sin. The wicked live in sin and love wickedness. The righteous, when they sin, regret their actions and mend their ways.