Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan give external link www.yoramraanan.com
The story of the trials and triumph of Joseph is without parallel in the Book of Genesis.
It is a complete narrative, what today we would call a novella, presenting all the events in great detail, conversations and descriptions included. Nothing is omitted.
We know the feelings and emotions of all the players.
We feel the pathos of Jacob – “you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief” (Genesis 42:38).
We see how the brothers are brought to realize the extent of their misdeeds – “Alas we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us” (Gen. 42:21). Both Reuben and Judah are shown to take responsibility. “Then Reuben said to his father, ‘You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you’” (Gen. 42:37). “Then Judah said to his father Israel, ‘I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible’” (Gen. 43:8). There is even the detailed description of Joseph’s emotions at a critical moment – “With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there” (Gen. 43:30).
Compare this plethora of detail with the terseness of the narrative of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, which is told in no more than 19 verses (Gen. 22:1-19) with almost no dialogue and a total absence of description of their feelings or motivation. Perhaps it was felt that this story of Joseph-Jacob-the brothers warranted total immersion to be appreciated. It is a very human story that must be relived in its entirely to be appreciated.
The story of Abraham and Isaac, on the other hand, is completely outside the realm of anything that we can comprehend. In any case, it certainly makes for fascinating dramatic reading.
Yet for all that, there are many puzzling things about the story, especially concerning the person of Joseph himself. In the narrations of his early life he appears to be the spoiled darling of a doting father, lavished with everything he could want and totally unaware of his self-centeredness, which borders on or even exceeds the bounds of callousness. The midrash even depicts him as vain and foppish in his clothing and self-preening. To the verse “Joseph was seventeen years old… and he was a lad (na’ar)…” (Gen.
37:2) the midrash says, “He was seventeen and you call him a lad? What it means is that he did foolish things (ma’ase na’arut) [i.e. ‘naarishkeit’] – he fixed up his eyes, walked on high heels and fancied up his hair!” (Genesis Raba 84:7). His descent into the pit, into Egypt, into slavery, into jail – where we find him in today’s portion – is the depiction of a fall from the heights to the very depths of despair. Yet we know little of what is going on in his head.
As deep as his descent, so high is his ascent. From jail in one moment he becomes the vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, clothed now in robes of fine linen (an obvious replacement for the many-colored coat, of which he had been deprived) and a gold chain, with all the Egyptians bowing before him wherever he went. How does he feel about all of this? That we are not told. The closest we get is in the names he gives his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The names seem to be Hebrew. The explanation that Joseph gives to them certainly connects them to Hebrew roots, although, as the biblical scholar E.A. Speiser wrote in his commentary to Genesis, “The aetiological explanations of the names are, as usual, independent of correct etymology.”
Considering the fact that Joseph himself was given an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah (Gen. 41:45), this use of Hebrew names seems to require some explanation.
Furthermore, Joseph was married to “Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On” (Gen. 41:45) and had adopted Egyptian dress and manners to the extent that he was not recognized by his brothers (Genesis 42:8). One also wonders how the grandchildren of the priest of On – the center of worship of the sun-god Re – were brought up and how Joseph himself worshiped in such a setting.
Naming his sons in Hebrew, he says, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home,” and “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction” (Gen. 41:51-52). There is something very strange about these explanations. Perhaps Joseph “doth protest too much.” If God has made him completely forget his hardship, why does he call Egypt “the land of my affliction”?The phrase, incidentally, is echoed later when matza is called “the bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). Is it too much to say that beneath all the glory, the beautiful garments and the high office he holds, this grand vizier feels himself still a foreigner in a land of affliction? Has he indeed forgotten his parental home, or is he still haunted by it? Perhaps he is doing his best to suppress the remembrance of where he came from, of who he is and of the father he has left behind – but with limited success.
What would Freud say about someone living the life of an Egyptian noble who gives his children Hebrew names, proclaims in his native language that he has completely forgotten all about his native land and his parental home, and calls his magnificent place of residence “the land of my affliction”? Perhaps this inner struggle also accounts at least in part for the most questionable of Joseph’s actions, his lack of any attempt to let his grieving father know that he is alive, and not only alive, but the ruler of Egypt.
Yes, Joseph is a conflicted person, torn between his outward self, which is no more than a mask, and his inner being, a Hebrew lad torn away from his home and family. Only in the next parasha will this tension be resolved. ■ The writer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer, is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, and the founding director of the Seminary of Jewish Studies (now the Schechter Institute). Twice awarded the Jewish Book Council prize for the year’s best book of scholarship, his forthcoming volume is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, Jewish Publication Society.