By Joel Gimpel
December 24, 2005
Some folks dream of the wonders they’ll do
Before their time on this planet is through.
Some just don’t have anything planned.
They hide their hopes and their heads in the sand.
I don’t say who is wrong, who is right,
But if by chance you are here for the night
Then all I need is an hour or two
To tell the tale of a dreamer like you.
We all dream a lot,
Some are lucky, some are not,
But if you think it, want it, dream it then it’s real,
You are what you feel.
But all that I say can be told another way,
In the story of a boy whose dream came true.
And he could be you.
Those aren’t my words; they’re lyrics by Tim Rice to the Prologue of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s great musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which will be presented in February by a talented troupe of actors, singers, dancers and musicians, under the baton of a talented conductor, me.
This week’s parsha, Vayeshev, begins the Joseph saga. This amazing story comprises a full four Torah portions — more than the stories of any of the prior patriarchs or matriarchs. This seems strange at first because Joseph is not even considered a patriarch in our tradition. He is merely the favorite son of our namesake Jacob/Israel who behaves in this portion like a 17-year-old spoiled brat, tattling on his brothers and then informing them of his dreams that he will someday rule over them. He also flaunts his special relationship with his father.
Of course, Jacob was not entirely innocent, because he clearly showed favoritism to Joseph by giving him the famous coat of many colors. After all that happened to Jacob due to the favoritism showed to him by his mother and the rivalry that he experienced with his brother Esau, we have to wonder how he could let the same thing happen to his son Joseph. But we shouldn’t be too surprised at how familial patterns of deception continue from generation to generation, not only in the Torah, but in “real life” as well. Those of us with siblings can probably remember their parents sometimes, often unwittingly, playing favorites.
Though Joseph is not considered among the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) his story encompasses almost the entire remainder of the book of Genesis, and is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of any of the patriarchs. It is Joseph’s story that helps to transition to the nation-building period that is the core of the remainder of the Torah, beginning with the exodus from Egypt. But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right.
Many of us are familiar with the story, whether due to having read the Torah narrative, hearing various retellings, or through “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” So I won’t spend a lot of time retelling it.
Throughout the ages we’ve criticized Joseph for the way he behaved towards his brothers. But some have expressed sympathy, saying that Jacob’s other sons should have shown compassion for their younger brother who lost his beloved mother while she was giving birth to his brother Benjamin. Instead, they treated him as an outsider, and so he used his father’s natural favoritism (based on the fact that he was Jacob’s beloved Rachel’s son) to taunt his brothers. This eventually backfired and caused his brothers to decide to sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites (though at first they were going to kill him), his coat then torn and dipped in goat’s blood in order to convince Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.
So how is it that this young upstart deserves four portions of his own? And why is it that tradition comes to refer to him as Yosef ha’tzaddik, Joseph the righteous one? As we read the four portions, we may discover the answers.
But we should remember that as we read the Joseph story it is also our story. It is the story of a favored son sold into slavery in Egypt, imprisoned due to false charges (when the wife of his master Potiphar accuses him of trying to seduce her when in fact it was she who wanted to seduce him) and then eventually being freed and being exalted to a high position and bringing his family to a place of honor as well. In many ways this foreshadows the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom.
This portion is also the beginning of the story of that slavery. For if Joseph had not gone down to Egypt, his brothers would not have ended up there and we would not have eventually become slaves. And had we not become slaves in Egypt, we wouldn’t have had to hurriedly flee, only to wander in the desert for forty years, without yeast for bread. Think about it. If not for the story of Joseph, we wouldn’t have to eat matzoh!
It can also be viewed in a positive light because the Joseph story shows us how the brothers — the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel — grow from men ready to kill their own brothers into men ready to begin leading a new nation.
In the mind of the Torah’s authors the journey into slavery that is set in motion by the story of Joseph is not viewed in a negative light. For it is our slavery that then allows us to be redeemed by God who then reveals the Torah to us at Sinai. We must first descend into the depths before we can be exalted to the heights. This is a recurring theme within much of Jewish history and thought and it all begins with Joseph being cast into the pit and sold into slavery.
There are many lessons that we can learn from this portion and the remainder of the Joseph story, for it is not only a microcosm of the Jewish journey, but it represents the journey that we all must take if we are to become free human beings.
As I said, most of us are quite familiar with the story, but something caught my eye in preparing for this Midrash that attracted my attention.
In the beginning of the portion we learn of Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph and how his brothers hated Joseph because of this. Joseph and Jacob are both aware of this, and yet Joseph does not hesitate to tell his brothers of the dreams that clearly imply that they will some day bow down to him.
Not long after, Jacob asks Joseph to go out to the fields where his brothers are minding the sheep in order to check on them. This is a strange request, because Jacob knew the brothers hated Joseph. Even stranger, though, is Joseph’s response to his father. After Jacob says “Come, I will send you to them,” Joseph says “Hineni,” which literally means, “Here I am,” though it’s also translated as “I am ready.” But “Hineni” is also Abraham’s response to God when commanded to sacrifice Isaac, and Moses’ response to God at the Burning Bush.
Abraham and Moses responded “Hineni” when God was about to ask them to embark on a difficult, life-changing journey. And though Moses seemed more reluctant to go on his journey than Abraham, both men ultimately began their journeys into the unknown with unwavering faith in God and in the holy nature of their task. Regardless of what we might think about the fact that Abraham didn’t argue with God when asked to sacrifice Isaac, it’s clear that he embarked on the journey filled with faith in God’s purpose.
The same is true of Joseph. Though the response “Hineni” was to his father, he was also aware on some level that he was responding to God. The entire Joseph narrative is unique in its seemingly secular nature. Though God is not an “active player” in the Joseph story, when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers in Egypt, he tells them that his journey was part of God’s plan and that it was God who sent him to Egypt and not them, by selling him into slavery.
If Joseph is able to interpret dreams, which implies that God gave him prophetic vision, then it is possible that he had the foresight to know what was about to happen to him. He was aware that he was about to embark on a journey that was part of God’s plan for him and for his family and their descendants. That could explain his response to Jacob of “Hineni.”
Hopefully, there’s a bit of Joseph in each of us. We’re each a dreamer prepared to journey into the unknown – even when there is risk involved. I would like to believe that we, like Joseph, Abraham and Moses, see us as part of “God’s plan” for making the world a better place. We each have the ability to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of our family and the world. May we each have the courage to say “Hineni” when we are called – no matter how afraid we might still be. And may we each eventually see ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves, something that is meant to improve us and the world around us.