Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Vayishlach, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Vayishlach.
We’re with Jacob (Israel from now on), back in the land of Canaan where Abraham had arrived many parshas ago. Our focus quickly leaves Israel and turns to his children, namely Joseph––”best of all his son.”
And what do you get someone for being the best? An ornamented tunic, apparently.
But it was the fact that Joseph was known to be the favorite that pissed his two older brothers off to no end. To be fair, Joseph had some annoying characteristics. Once he dreamed that the sheaves (a bundle of cereal plants) of his brothers bowed to his sheaves––and he made a point to tell them about it.
“Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” his brothers asked after hearing about the dream.
Joseph didn’t stop there. After another night, he shared a dream where all that apparently happened was that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph.
This time, Joseph shared the dream with his father as well. Even Israel, who claimed Joseph as his favorite, had his limits.
“Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?”
Look, I get it. If I went to my older brother and said, “Hey, Brother! I had a crazy dream last night. We were playing guitar and suddenly your guitar bowed to mine. Anywho, have a good one!” my brother would probably want to smack me, too.
Except Joseph’s brothers didn’t just want to smack him. They wanted to kill him. But in the end, they just stripped him of his tunic (not the tunic!) and threw him into an empty pit.
Interestingly, there’s nothing written about how Joseph reacted to all of this. That seems to be pretty standard for the Torah. Its writing style is often void of emotion or interaction in favor of a matter-of-fact recounting of events. Torah scribes could tell classic tales in three lines. Imagine Little Red Riding Hood, Torah style.
“Little Red Riding Hood went to visit her grandmother, who unbeknownst to her, was eaten by a Big Bad wolf. The wolf tricked the young girl and ate her whole, too. The two were saved by a hunter who cut both the girl and her grandmother out of the wolf’s belly, and he filled the wolf’s body with stones so he couldn’t move and died. The end.”
From that emotionless rendering of the story, you have to discern what really happened and the lessons to be learned from it yourself. In Judaism, there’s the Talmud that does that with thousands of pages dedicated to Rabbis debating the fundamental truth behind the stories of the Torah across centuries.
Sold Into Slavery
Joseph’s brothers sit down to a meal when they get an idea. They decide they can’t kill him. After all, “he is our brother, our own flesh.”
They see a caravan of Ishmaelites and sell Joseph to them for twenty pieces of silver. The Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s bloodied tunic makes its way back to Israel, who believes his favorite son has been killed by a beast. Israel goes into mourning just as Joseph is sold in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward.
Now, this isn’t quite yet the Egypt of Exodus but we’re getting pretty damn close.
It’s noted several times throughout this Parsha that “the Lord was with Joseph.” This has been interpreted to mean that no matter what, good or bad, Joseph’s faith was never shaken.
You can easily apply a secular lesson to this, vowing to keep your head up and stay optimistic no matter what happens in your life. We’re all guilty of taking for granted the good and hyper-focusing on the bad. Joseph, it seems, would suggest to accept it all with equal regard and, as Eric Idle sings, always look on the bright side of life.
In this Parsha, it’s precisely that attitude that gains Joseph favor with his Egyptian master. He saw that Joseph was successful with “everything he undertook.”
You might think, “But what about getting tossed in the pit and losing that sweet ass tunic? That doesn’t seem very successful!”
Well, perhaps Joseph isn’t defined by his failures. Perhaps we shouldn’t define ourselves by our failures. Stay positive, success will come, and an Egyptian master will take a liking to you.
So Joseph becomes his master’s personal attendant, in charge of his personal household. From that moment on, the Lord’s blessing extended over his house for Joseph’s sake.
Takeaway: Surround yourself with good people.
Things were good for Joseph until his master’s wife wanted to get busy with him.
“Lie with me,” she says.
But Joseph does the right thing and refuses, not wanting to betray the trust his master has put in him. The Egyptian’s wife doesn’t take no for an answer and tries again one day when the household is otherwise empty. She grabs Joseph.
“Lie with me!” she demands. But Joseph gets aways and flees outside.
The woman then calls her servants and accuses the “Hebrew” of essentially trying to rape her.
“This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.”
She repeats the lie to Joseph’s master, who puts him in prison.
This feels like a particularly strange Parsha to read nowadays and following last week’s rape of Dinah. We know it’s incredibly rare for women to make up such a tale, yet it features prominently in this Parsha. In fact, flip the genders and it sounds like a tragically common story; the man waiting until they’re alone and the woman having to flee.
Then again, we know that Torah scribes were human, and in that regard, incredibly fallible. Who’s to say that what got written down wasn’t tinkered with to suit contemporary societal norms? Is it possible that Joseph did try something sketchy with this woman but that flipping the roles better fit the narrative Torah authors were going for? Or is such an idea another example of reworking an ancient text to better suit one’s personal values?
What we do know is that it’s all moot for Joseph, because he’s trapped in a prison. Still, “the Lord was with Joseph.” So that’s nice.
The Cupbearer and the Baker
After some time, Joseph is joined in prison by a cupbearer and baker of the king of Egypt. A cupbearer, by the by, was a real title for someone who served drinks at royal tables. In the end, a pretty apt title.
Joseph notices that his new roommates appear distraught. What gives?
“We had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them,” they say.
Fortunately, Joseph has a skill for this kind of thing. Joseph interprets the cupbearer’s dream to mean that Pharaoh will pardon him in three days and restore him to his post. All Joseph asks in return is “think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.”
The baker likes how favorably Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream and asks for help with his dream. After hearing about the dream, Joseph interprets it rather matter-of-factly.
“In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.”
Don’t ask for feedback if you don’t really want it, I guess.
But because this is Torah, it’s not recorded how the baker reacted to such grim news. Instead, we cut to three days later, on the Pharaoh’s birthday. Joseph’s predictions come true with the cupbearer going back to his cupbearing and the baker getting impaled.
Worse of all for Joseph? The cupbearer breaks his end of the bargain and forgets to mention Joseph at the end of the Parsha.
Onward with Parsha Miketz.