The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “What’s Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from VAYEISHEV (Chapters 37:1–40:23).
A Dysfunctional Family?
There is much about Joseph’s life to ponder. For example, in Genesis 37:2, the Torah states that Joseph grew up with the sons of the concubines Bilhah and Zilpah, and that he brought “evil reports” about his brothers to his father. The Bible commentators Rashi and Rashbam suggest that Joseph grew up with the sons of the concubines because Jacob’s wife Leah’s children didn’t treat his concubines’ children properly and Joseph felt sorry for them and preferred to be with them. This interpretation helps explain why Joseph’s brothers began to hate him. And that hatred intensified when Joseph brought the “evil reports” to Jacob.
This interpretation suggests a complexity in Joseph’s personality. He shows kindness to some of his brothers and squeals on others. This is not unusual. Most people have both admirable and non-admirable qualities.
But is this interpretation correct? We called Joseph a squealer. But perhaps he was attempting to have his father intervene and improve his brothers’ behavior. Is that squealing? If a brother or sister is “doing drugs,” shouldn’t that be reported to a parent who can get the child to rehabilitation before it becomes too difficult?
Scripture then reports that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his sons” and he presents him with a ketonet passim. This is a “robe with sleeves,” according to Targum Onkelos. Others translate it as a “colorful coat” (Radak), “embroidered coat” (Ibn Ezra), and a royal garment (Gersonides). It may have been a garment that signified that its wearer would take over as head of the family. This intensifies the brothers’ hatred of Joseph, giving credence to the Babylonian Talmud’s warning that parents should be careful not to cause jealousy between their children (Shabbat 10b). Why does Jacob make this mistake? Why doesn’t he remember his own experiences when his father preferred his brother Esau over him?
Joseph exasperates the situation. He tells his brothers two of his dreams, which they interpret to mean that Joseph wants to rule over them, and they hate him even more for it. Why does Joseph act so foolishly and say something that would certainly antagonize his brothers to an even greater extent? How can we account for Joseph later showing how wise he was in Egypt?
Is this a dysfunctional family? In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” How should we apply Tolstoy’s comment to the lives of Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel and Leah and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers? They all experienced difficulties. Should we refuse to sugar-coat the episodes of their lives and learn from them to avoid the mistakes they made and realize that despite being human and making mistakes, it is still possible to contribute to the advancement of civilization?