Has Joseph Forgotten Where He Came From?

Dear Rabbi: 

Before I go on to comment on Miketz, I would like to follow-up on Vayeshev based on things you stated during the last Torah reading. Joseph is such a controversial figure in the history of Judaism that I believe something should be said.
I did not mention this in my reflections as to Vayeshev, but based on what I see as an ongoing theme during Genesis, in the Fifth Aliyah there is mention that Joseph has “handsome features and a beautiful complexion”, which again seems to give importance to good looks being important. The difference here is that Joseph is a male and all the others mentioned are female.

You remarked that as to his interactions with Potiphar’s wife, he seemed to hesitate and then giving what I believe to be the “company line” as derived from rabbinical interpretations, you infer that Joseph was stopped from acting on his impulses when he saw his father Jacob in his mind.

This seems to go against the text when in the Sixth Aliyah it states the following: “In this house, there is no one greater than I, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against G-d?" Are you inferring that Jacob should be equated to G-d? I would think not but the rabbis always make Jacob out to be the righteous one.

Further how can there be “hesitation” on the part of Joseph when we learn that Potiphar’s wife came on to him on a number of occasions when the following was stated: “Now it came about when she spoke to Joseph day in and day out, that he did not obey her, to lie beside her [and] to be with her.”

Your comment about Joseph developing because he is concerned about other while in prison is not how I interpret the Torah when in the Seventh Aliyah it says as follows: “And he asked Pharaoh's chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master's house, saying, "Why are your faces sad today?"

Here we have Joseph walking around the prison because he has the run of the place and he engages in idle conversation with two men that show a facial expression that is easily detectable and it leads to something that may have been preordained to help Joseph get out of prison.

What is more interesting in this aliyah is what I believe are Joseph’s real feelings when he helps out the butler wherein it is stated: “But remember me when things go well with you, and please do me a favor and mention me to Pharaoh, and you will get me out of this house.” He is thinking about himself and getting out of prison and is asking the butler to ask Pharaoh to get him out. There is nothing wrong with trying to get out of a place he never should have been in the first place, but it is the person he is seeking help from (Pharaoh) that intrigues me. I will get to this later.

Finally the Seventh Aliyah bolsters what I have come to suspect as to what Joseph is becoming or always was when he relates his history to his fellow prisoners as follows: “For I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here too, I have done nothing, for which they have put me into the dungeon." Joseph makes a statement that he came from the land of Hebrews but he does not include himself as one of them.

On to Miketz. It starts off with Pharaoh having his dreams and the butler finally remembering Joseph as one who can interpret these dreams.

In the Second Aliyah, Pharaoh recounted his dreams to Joseph. Joseph tells Pharaoh that both dreams contained a singular message: seven years of plenty were destined to come upon Egypt, followed by seven years of severe famine. Joseph proposed a plan to store the excess grain of the years of plenty, to serve as a reserve for the famine years to follow. Pharaoh was greatly impressed by Joseph's wisdom.

From this we learn in the Third Aliyah that Pharaoh appointed Joseph as viceroy of Egypt, and placed him in charge of the impending food collection operation. Thirty-year-old Joseph was placed second-in command of the Egyptian empire, accountable to no one but Pharaoh himself. Indeed, the seven years of plenty arrived as foretold by Joseph, and Joseph skillfully oversaw the collection of the surplus grain.

Here we see Joseph’s rise to power and he seems to be showing a great deal of respect and loyalty to Pharaoh. Is there any mention of his family here? What we also learn from the Third Aliyah is that in addition to naming Joseph second in command, Pharaoh does the following:
“And Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath Pa'neach, and he gave him Asenath the daughter of Poti phera, the governor of On, for a wife, and Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt.”
So we now have Joseph with a new identity and a wife who happens to be the daughter of Potiphar who had put him in prison in the first place. Coincidence, I think not. There is definitely a “grand plan” in all of this and we were told, in an earlier parshah, what it would be. More on this later. It should also be noted that unlike his stance against Potiphar’s wife, Joseph does not protest any of this.

His wife gives him two sons and as described in the aliyah:
“And Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, for "G-d has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house." “And the second one he named Ephraim, for "G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."

To me, this is a man that is becoming quite comfortable in his adopted country and it seems that he is forgetting where he came from.

We then learn that Joseph’s second interpretation of the seven years of famine comes to fruition leading Jacob to send ten of his sons to Egypt to get food. He will not part with Benjamin because he does not want to lose his second favorite from his beloved wife Rachel. I keep looking for Jacob’s development, and I am having a great deal of trouble finding it.
The story goes on with the brothers arriving and standing before Joseph, but did not recognize him, as his boyish appearance had changed in the interim years. When the brothers broach their request to purchase food, Joseph deals with them harshly, accusing them of espionage, and incarcerating them all for three days. This can be attributed to Joseph wanting payback for what they did to him, a perfectly normal reaction to seeing his brothers after all these years.

The Fifth Aliyah is one of the most interesting and revealing text in this Parshah. We learn that on the third day, Joseph released them all, aside for Simeon, whom he held hostage. He tells them that they are to return to Canaan and return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, and thus establish their innocence. The brothers recognize that this was punishment for the sale of Joseph, and expressed regret for their deed.

Joseph instructs his servants to place the monies the brothers had paid for the food in the sacks of grain they were given. The brothers arrive back in Canaan and recount the entire episode to Jacob. Jacob was highly disturbed by what had happened, and initially refuses to send Benjamin, unwilling to consider the possibility of losing Rachel's only remaining son. At this point I think the actual text is important when it states the following:

But he (Jacob) said, "My son shall not go down with you, because his brother is dead, and he alone is left, and if misfortune befalls him on the way you are going, you will bring down my gray head in sorrow to the grave."

Here again we see the true Jacob. He already has lost Joseph and he tells nine of his other sons that “my son shall not go down with you” because he could not bear to lose his other son that he conceived with Rachel. What about Simeon not to mention the slight he gives directly to his other sons. We also know that he does not think much of the words of Rueben, when he offers his own sons if Benjamin is not brought back.

Eventually, though, after the food provisions ran low, and Judah’s words of a personal guarantee of Benjamin's safe return, Jacob agrees to send him. At least Jacob shows faith in one of his sons, but to me, Jacob as a father figure leaves much to think about in a negative way.

We then learn of Joseph’s love of his brother Benjamin when they return and he has to leave them to weep in private but what about his other brothers? This week’s story ends with a plot conceived of by Joseph when he gives them what they want in the way of food and they depart, but not before Joseph had his royal goblet planted in Benjamin's sack of food. Joseph then dispatches a posse to confront the brothers and "uncover" the planted goblet. The brothers were all brought back to Joseph, who demanded that the "thief," Benjamin alone, remain behind as his slave.

Let’s leave it with this “cliff hanger” and return next Shabbat with the next part of the Joseph saga and its place in the development of Judaism.


Shalom Mordecai,

To be clear, I very much appreciate your critique of the “company line” even though I revert to it often. If I understand your point correctly, the verse you cite from the sixth Aliyah suggests plainly that the fear of G-d rather than the image of his father Jacob prevented him from being seduced by Potiphar. Why then would the midrashist suggest otherwise? G-d is the opposite of concrete, and as someone who can appreciate the power of the father-son dynamic, I would guess that you can see the merit of this midrash. I guess your objection would be that Jacob was not a righteous person, so why would that evoke anything in Joseph. The power of being his father, however, could have been enough. We don’t love our fathers because they are righteous; we love them because they are our progenitors.
Your argument against Joseph hesitating has strength, but acknowledge what the merit of my position was. If you recall, I based it on the presence of an unusual trope mark. Perhaps these are the benefits of being a Torah reader.

I think your sensitivity to what you perceive as the selfishness of Biblical figures like Jacob or Joseph is important. In short, you are using a Jewish value – being concerned with another – as a means for critiquing our forefathers.

I also wonder about what Joseph’s relationship to his family is. Why didn’t he send for his father as soon as he became the vizier? He could have spared Jacob heartache. The direction you’re pointing to is that Joseph has assimilated into being an Egyptian, and this is how I read the narrative, too.

Jacob’s “development” is much less linear. Note how the Torah shifts back and forth between Jacob and Israel. Unlike Avram who becomes Abraham, Jacob remains Jacob even as he has become Israel.

I agree that Joseph’s act of putting his brothers in prison for three days is an act of vengeance.

Jacob’s reaction upon the return of his sons is indeed telling; in this regard, he hasn’t changed, but has doubled down. The same behavior that got him into trouble with Joseph manifests again. Why would the Torah show this? I think the reason is because we are supposed to see how the brothers change, not Jacob; and indeed the brothers do change, and that is what’s remarkable. They accept that their father plays favorites rather than being enraged by that. (Jacob would have already viewed Simeon as a bad egg based on Shechem, so I’m not surprised he doesn’t lament his imprisonment.)

Indeed, Jacob as father may leave much to be desired.

Presumably, Benjamin didn’t sell Joseph into slavery, so Joseph would have a double reason to cry when he saw him. I would add that Joseph already cried when he saw his brothers the first time. Why must he cry again for them? 


Shalom Rabbi,

I thought I answered your question about your Jacob reference as to Joseph not going through with any misdeeds as to Potiphar's wife being used by rabbis, was to make Jacob look good although there is no corroboration of this in the Torah.  As I have asked you to do in the past, as a rabbi make your own conclusions. Maybe some day they will be quoted. I loved my father more than I can describe, but I don't think he would want to be represented for something he was not.
I would accept my interpretation of Jacob as selfish but Joseph is a different character.  He is more oblivious to what he is doing than being selfish. I do not know if he thinks of himself as handsome or charismatic as it is stated in the parshahs.   This will be further carried on as I interpret Joseph in the upcoming parshahs. 
I also make note of the back and forth of Jacob and Israel. Maybe "Jacob" is what he is. "Israel" is what he should be. 
I will leave most of the rest of what you stated but why can't the reference to Joseph when he sees Benjamin be as simple as they are one hundred percent brothers whereas his relationship with his other siblings is that of a half brother? Their mother was Rachel and Jacob never hesitated explaining who he truly loved.  


Shalom Mordecai,

Sometimes I find the commentators insights worth sharing, but I do lean toward trying to share my own. I agree that Joseph is less self-aware than Jacob, and I do think that Joseph responds as he does to Benjamin because they are 100% brothers, leaving aside the incident of Joseph being sold into slavery.