Parashat Vayeshev – Erev Shabbat 20 December 2019
Week of 15-21 December 2019
Torah portion: Genesis 37:1-40:23  Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

The story of Joseph looms large within the collection of stories contained in the book of Genesis (Bereshit). It is overflowing with tales of favoritism, envy, dreams, disregard for human dignity, betrayal, deception, temptation and human frailty. This commentary will explore the relationship between Joseph and his brothers presented in chapter 37.

The translation in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Plaut, 246) notes that Joseph would bring “malicious reports” of his brothers’ activity to Jacob (37:2). Further, Joseph is favored over his siblings by their father (37:3). In addition to this, Joseph shared the content of two dreams in which his brothers are subservient to him. Whilst some commentators excuse his behavior (ibid.), it does not take much to understand why Joseph’s relationship with his brothers was not congenial. The text states that the brothers hated (37:6-8), detested (37:11) and even plotted to kill Joseph (37:18-20). What happens next (37:26ff.) reveals a conflation of two different stories in which Reuben and Judah variously protect and harm their brother; throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery (ibid, 257).

What then are we to make of these episodes, which paint Joseph in a bad light, but his brothers in a worse one? The Torah yet again provides us with lessons to be learnt rather than with exemplary behavior to follow, which I believe is part of its genius. In the case of Joseph, we see his insensitivity towards his brothers’ feelings resulting in his estrangement from them – even if the means by which this is achieved are unjustifiable and excessive. But what of the fate of the brothers? What are the consequences of their actions? To answer this, we must look at this week’s haftarah from the prophet Amos, whose writings are characterized by a strong sense of, and call to, justice.

Michael Fishbane (p. 47) notes the connection between the selling of Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver (37:28) and the reference in the parashah to the Israelites selling the innocent (tsaddik) for silver (Amos 2:6). A further connection can be found between the second half of this verse (“and the needy for a pair of sandals”) and the Musaf Service of Yom Kippur in the form of an “apocryphal midrash known as Eleh Ezkerah, according to which ten Sages were to be put to death by the Romans to atone for the crime of the ten brothers who sold Joseph into slavery … for a pair of sandals” (ibid, pp. 47-48).

Michael Fishbane (p. 48) also notes that the sharp condemnation of the unjust and criminal behavior of the Israelites in the passage from Amos which accompanies this week’s parashah might have contributed to the development of this story in which atonement is required because of the brothers’ treatment of Joseph. This is in line with the penalty prescribed in Exodus that “One who kidnaps a person—whether having sold or still holding the victim—shall be put to death” (21:16).

For Reflection and Discussion: The prophetic vision we see in the scriptures Christianity shares with the Jewish people show a sharp awareness that when people’s actions are not in alignment with the vision of God, the consequences are invariably grave. What might this say to people today whose actions go against the vision of love, justice and peace that belongs to God?

Bibliography: Fishbane, M., The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarah (JPS, 2002); Plaut, W.G. and Stein, D.E. eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (New York: 2006).

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