Field of flowers 521.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
We have just concluded the account of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau for the
birthright-blessings, the momentous conflict regarding the heir to the mission
and covenant of Abraham. We now enter the next generation, Jacob/Israel and his
12 sons. A small, nuclear family is now emerging as an incipient
nation. The question is: upon whose shoulders will the mantle of future
Hebraic leadership now devolve?
We are no longer dealing with one individual
like Abraham standing alone against an idolatrous and immoral world; we are now
speaking of 12 brothers, potentially 12 tribes, and the heir apparent must have
the requisite strength, courage and wisdom to unite them to convey ethical
monotheism to the entire world. The task is daunting and the very future of
humanity is dependent upon the proper choice for leader.
Jacob’s sons are still young and the “tribes” they will one day represent have
yet to emerge, Vayeshev introduces us to the major contenders. From
Jacob’s perspective, the heir has already been chosen: “These are the
generations of Jacob, Joseph was seventeen years old…” (Genesis 37:2). It is the
beautiful, clever, firstborn son of his beloved wife Rachel who must be the
standard-bearer of the Abrahamic Covenant as the family of Jacob enters history
as the nation of Israel. Indeed, Jacob presents him with the striped colored
cloak as a sign of his election.
As the story unfolds, however, we see
apparent weaknesses within Joseph’s personality that make him unsuitable for the
prize, at least at this stage of his life. He reports his brothers’ every
peccadillo back to their father, he treats them with supercilious disdain and
brags to them about his dreams of mastery. He has the capacity to unify
the brothers; however, the problem is that they are all united against him, even
in their desire to kill him.
These dreams appear to be Joseph’s major
flaw. The greatest legacy that Abraham received from God to bequeath to his
descendants was the Promised Land of Israel, but Joseph hankers after the
sheaves of grain produced by the more sophisticated Egypt, superpower of the
Middle East, “gift of the Nile.” And even more problematic, while God was at the
center of Abraham’s universe and of Jacob’s dream of the ladder uniting heaven
and earth, Joseph is at the center of his own dreams, with the 11 sheaves of
grain bowing down to him. Yes, he understands the familial mission to the world,
but while he dreams of the sun, moon and stars, he sees them, too, as bowing
down to him! The God of Abraham is nowhere in his dreams.
take a page out of Rebekah’s textbook. They believe their father to be
blinded by his love of Rachel, so for the good of the family and future nation,
they plot to get rid of Joseph; they deceive their father into thinking that he
has been torn apart by a wild beast.
It is at this juncture that the most
likely candidate for heir-apparent comes to the fore, proving his selfless
morality in his attempt to save Joseph from his brothers. Reuben is the
firstborn son of Jacob, albeit to the unappreciated wife Leah. Logic dictates
that he would have had most cause to rejoice at Joseph’s disappearance, making
him, Reuben, Jacob’s most logical next choice.
But just as the brothers
grab the hapless Joseph and are about to kill him, “Reuben hears it” – he hears
something that makes him save Joseph from their hands.
Reuben says, “Let
us not murder a soul” (Gen. 37:21). Strangely, the very next verse
begins, “And Reuben said to them, Do not shed blood; cast him into this pit...”
But why does the Bible say “and he said” twice without anyone else speaking in
The great biblical teacher Nehama Leibowitz explains that if this had
been a Shakespearean play, a parenthesis would appear between Reuben’s two
utterances, which would read, “Crowd murmurs in dissent.” Reuben
underestimates his brothers’ hatred; he thought that with a few ethical
directives he could save Joseph. But apparently he lacks the authority and the
wisdom to deflect their murderous designs. They cast Joseph into the pit, which
would certainly have become his grave had he remained there. By the time Reuben
returns to save him, Joseph is gone.
Now a third unlikely candidate
appears on the scene, Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. He is ethical as
well as wise; he understands the importance of saving Joseph; he even refers to
him as our “flesh and blood, our brother,” but he understands that the only way
to dissuade the brothers from murdering Joseph is by gaining profit for them.
Why kill him and receive nothing in return? Why not sell him, which will bring
profit as well as removing him from the picture? (Gen. 37:26,27). The wise Judah
wins the day!
Who eventually receives the birthright and why? Do Joseph, Reuben
and Judah change and develop as they grow older? Our story is only beginning…
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and
Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.