Commentary on Parashat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
This week’s Torah portion takes us into the “Joseph novella,” which will continue through the rest of Genesis. As Joseph’s story begins, he’s tending sheep with his brothers and reporting on their behavior to their father Jacob. The Torah doesn’t tell us what exactly Joseph related to Jacob, or whether it was true, though the commentators Rashi (11th-century France) and the Radak (12th-13th-century France) suggest that his brothers were behaving unethically and treating each other poorly.
Joseph’s brothers hate him. In part because their father made him a fancy tunic. Joseph, for his part, is willing to name their ugly behaviors. And then, in what could be attributed either to arrogance or to naivete, he tells them his dreams — for instance, the one where their sheaves of wheat bow down to his. So they throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery.
It’s an outsized reaction, but everything about Joseph’s story is outsized. His brothers’ hatred seems unreasonable and excessive. So do his frequent changes in circumstance: from shepherd boy to slaving caravan, from respected servant to innocent man wrongly accused. (And that’s just this week. Next week as the saga continues, his changes in fortune are equally dramatic.) This is a biblical equivalent of As the World Turns, chronicling Joseph’s many inversions.
The Joseph story is a paradigmatic example of what the Hasidic tradition calls “descent for the sake of ascent.” Joseph’s downfalls — both literal and figurative— are the springboard that enable him to rise. He descends into the pit, then into Egypt. (In Torah, one “descends” into Egypt and “rises” into Israel.) Then Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of rape, causing him to descend yet again, this time into Pharaoh’s dungeon.
At this point, Joseph could be forgiven for indulging in some self-pity. Nothing in his life has gone the way he presumably wanted. He’s gone from being hated by his siblings, to being sold into slavery, to being falsely imprisoned. But notably, the Torah tells us that even when Joseph is in this darkest of circumstance, God is with him. Joseph’s relationship with divinity remains strong and clear. Indeed, he relies on that connection with the divine to interpret dreams for other prisoners.
What does it mean to say that God was with him? The Or HaChayyim (Chaim ibn Attar, born in Morocco, died 1743) teaches that the inspiration of Shechinah (the immanent, indwelling divine Presence) flows through a person proportionally to that person’s openness to presence within themselves. For the Or HaChayyim, “God was with him” means that Joseph opened himself to divine flow. He was so steeped in the sweetness of connection with God that he was protected from feeling the evil of his circumstance.
In next week’s Torah portion we’ll see how all of Joseph’s trials put him in exactly the right place to be able to save the nation, and his family, from famine. But this week’s portion ends with Joseph in jail, doing precisely as the psalmist urges at the end of Psalm 27: staying strong and keeping hope in God. The cupbearer to whom he offered counsel has forgotten him, abandoning him in the dungeon, but Joseph knows that God remembers and accompanies him, always.
As a rabbi and spiritual director, one of my core questions is, “Where is God for you in this?” Spiritual direction invites us to discern divinity in whatever’s unfolding. But Joseph doesn’t need to be prompted with that query. Joseph feels God with him even while being unfairly maligned and punished. And because his sense of God’s presence is so strong, his sense of self isn’t shaken. That’s the quality in Joseph to which I most aspire: his deep connection with God.
What Joseph’s story comes to teach me this year is the importance of cultivating the awareness that for him seems to come so naturally: awareness that I am seen, and cherished, and loved by what our nightly liturgy (in the Ahavat Olam prayer) calls an “unending love.” Even if circumstances seem bleak, even in the face of unethical behaviors from others, I can seek to find in every downturn an opportunity to lift my eyes up, and lift my heart up, to something beyond myself. As the psalmist writes (in Psalm 118, and Psalm 56, among other places), God is with me: I need not fear.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.