Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pitfalls for the Influential, Favoured & Handsome & the Walk & Talk of Joseph

Success and influence are often associated with evil or greatness, both can be correct. Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing was called “the real devil” by a priest speaking out against “rapacious property developers”, an apology followed1. Humility, good judgement and not being self absorbed are some of the qualities we respect in successful people, Joseph's life is filled with insights about this.
17 year old Joseph seems like a winner, his dreams predict greatness with his brothers bowing before him. Joseph is father's favoured son and is good looking to boot. He is described as vain fixing his hair, touching his eyes and having this unusual affected, slow, arrogant2 walk that made his heel appear like it was suspended in mid-air3. His father makes no secret of his preference for Joseph, giving him a coloured or stripped coat as a blatant symbol of this.

Joseph acts unwisely4 when he fails to consider the impact on his brothers, or his relationship with them, of his telling his father every bad thing he thinks his brothers are doing5. Commentary relates his 'evil reports' to accusations that the sons of Leah called the sons of their fathers concubines, slaves while Joseph insisted that they were his equals and even served them6, and having their “eyes on the daughters of the land7 as well the poor quality of their work as shepherds8.

Joseph fails to give his brother the benefit of the doubt on any of the accusations9. His accusation that the brothers see the sons of the concubines, Bilha and Zilpa, as slaves may have been based on his high standard of emphasising equality and spending time with them which his brothers did not do. Joseph assumed that this was because they saw them as slaves and this was for him as if they had called them slaves. Their interaction with the daughters of the land was purely commercial, but was seen by Ultra-holy Joseph as having impure meaning10. For this talk, Joseph is said to have been punished with 12 years of prison, while Jacob was deprived of the divine 'holy spirit' for 24 years for accepting Joseph's reports as true11.

Joseph also tries to persuade his brothers that his elevation to the top is “right”, by telling them of his dreams which would prove he is destined to rule. They don't want to hear of it12, but he insists and pleads with them to listen. It is tempting get others to see reason by providing proof that you are right is great, but does it achieve anything? At a seminar for Yeshiva students, I asked them to raise their hand if they ever changed their mind because they lost an argument. None of them did.

The combination of factors made it all worse. If Joseph was not favoured by their father, they could argue with him and reproach him about his tale-bearing. Being openly favoured , father knowing that his sons knew about this, there was no possibility to resolve the issue because Joseph will always be seen as right13. In addition, if the brothers talked to Joseph at all, in spite of the accusations he made against them, that would imply that what he is saying is true. If they maintain the conflict they could hope that their father might dismiss Josephs's reports as stemming from the hatred between them14.

The hatred the brothers felt for Joseph was so intense that when they decide to throw into a deep pit, in spite of their desire to just remove his special coat, they did it with so much anger and great hatred and with such cruelty that they tore all his clothes and he was left naked15. Then they sat down to eat bread, there was no sense that what happened was wrong16.

The handsome young man was transformed instantly, his face turned green because of his dread of the snakes in the pit. When the brothers tried to sell him, they could only get an offer of 20 silver coins for the green faced wretch. When they started to bring him out of the pit his good looks returned, so the brother asked for a better price, the buyers agreed to throw in some shoes on top of the 20 coins. This was later referred to by the prophet, “selling a righteous person for silver, and a poor person for shoes17.

Joseph appears very humble and devout at this point in our story. God was with Joseph, His name constantly coming out of Joseph mouth as Joseph prays for this and thanks God for that. His master, Potiphar asked him what all the mumbling is about, are doing witch craft on me? Joseph replies, “no I am praying that I find favour in your eyes18

Joseph's prayers are answered and he finds favour in his masters eyes, becoming manager of Potiphar's house, just as he had been his fathers favourite. Of course there is a big difference, he is a slave now and his father is devastated by his absence, but Joseph sees himself as a “ruler”, and his appearance becomes a focus again, curling his hair and enjoying his food19. He is so handsome, that Potiphars wife invites women to the house, gives each a knife and a fruit, then asked Joseph to enter. As he enters the women as so struck that each of them cut their hands20. He is soon seduced by his masters wife, according to one view he had decided to succumb to her before changing his mind and withstanding the temptations, staying to true to his principles.

Joseph's capacity to see things from another person's point of view is much greater at this stage of the story. He speaks convincingly to Potiphars wife about the proposed act from the perspective of Potiphars rights and his obligation to Potiphar. “indeed, my master does not know anything that is with me in this house, and everything that he has he has placed in my hand21(because he trusts me). “There is no one greater than me in this house, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife, and how can I do this great evil”, only after all that adding “and I will have sinned to God”.

For his integrity, he is falsely accused by this wicked woman who twists the story and is imprisoned. He rises in prison to a leadership role. Still, after all he has been through he could have been angry with the whole world, but instead we find him caring about his fellow prisoners22. He is alert to the needs of others and so notices sadness on two prisoners faces , he asks “why are your faces bad today?” and focused on their problems. Vigilance, modesty, with-holding judgement and caring about others are all called for from all who are favoured to whatever extent.

1Sydney Morning Herald, 23 11 2010.
2Matnot Kehuna, commentary on Beresheet Rabba 84
3Beresheet Rabba Perek 84
4Seforno on 37:2
5Genesis 37:2
6Yelamdenu, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1392
9Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh commentary on Genesis
10Etz Yoseph, commentary on Beresheet Rabba 84
11Pirkey Rabbeinu Hakadosh Pirkah DrArbaah 24b, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1396
12Ohr Hachayim Genesis 37:5
13Ohr Hachayim, Genesis 37:4
14Klei Yakar, Genesis 37:4
15Ohr Hachayim, Genesis 37:23
17Sifsei Chachamim Genesis 37:28, also citing Amos 2
18Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev 8
19Gensis 39:6
20Yelamdenu, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1490
21Genesis 39:9
22The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as I heard it retold by Rabbi YY Jacobson.


  1. the sad truth is that we must suffer in order to gain empathy and deepen. And yet,knowing that - doesnt it make the bitterness we must all endure a little sweeter?