With this week’s parsha, we enter the most well-developed and fascinating story in the Bible. This is the archetypical soap opera, written with flair and literary skill, that sweeps us away with its melodramatic scenes. With such a long story (4 parshot are devoted to it) so meticulously forged, we are evidently supposed to learn something from it. What do we learn? That broad question opens many cans of worms. We will deal with just a few.
Commentators, both classical and modern, look at Yaacov’s parenting practices and come to diametrically opposed conclusions. The gevalt school says that he was just following his parents’ and grandparents’ practice of favoring one child over another and so continued to create dissension and hatred in the family that even exceeded his parents’ and grandparents’ efforts.
No, say others. He did learn. That’s why he did not expel or reject Reuven when he slept with Yaacov’s concubine, or Shimon and Levi after they had demolished the city of Shechem. He did not want to recreate family situations where a child was unwanted in the family. He was trying to teach them that family came first.
We can say that both approaches are correct, and mistaken. We can understand why he doesn’t chastise Yosef for all his megalomaniacal dreams, after all, dreams were second nature to Yaacov and if his son is carrying on in his tradition, that’s evidently the way it has to be. Some of his other actions and inactions are questionable, however.
Commentators, both classical and modern, call attention to the quirks of fate in the story. The unnamed person who happens to be around when Yosef can’t find his brothers in Shechem and directs him to Dotan. Deus ex machina?
What would have happened if that person had not directed him there? No Egypt, no viceroy, no storehouses for the seven years of famine, perhaps no descent to Egypt and 400 years of slavery? Alternative history. A few minutes earlier or later and Yosef might not have met him. Unless of course the meeting was pre-ordained, and these anonymous messengers (who may or may not be angels in disguise, or people who are unaware that they are doing God’s work) – these messengers often tip the scales for the good and bad.
Commentators, classical and modern, censure Yehuda for his double standard toward his daughter-in-law Tamar. After her two first husbands – both sons of Yehuda – died, she was not allowed to get married until Yehuda gave her his third son, which he didn’t want to do. Yet Yehuda would have keep his third son with him indefinitely, and Tamar would have remained an agunah if not for the tenacity and daring of Tamar, who got pregnant from Yehuda.
At the same time, we absolutely kvell when Yehuda recognizes that his wrong was greater than hers, that he should have given his third son to Tamar and so she was more righteous than he. And he says so publically. This is something we do not find very often. (For those studying the Book of Samuel with me, you will remember how Eli the High Priest follows the same high standard. He is berating Hanna for being drunk. She explains that she is not drunk but rather a very unhappy woman who is praying, and on the spot, Eli changes direction and says, May your prayer be answered and may you be blessed. Admitting your mistakes is a big thing.)
Commentators classical and modern have a field day with Yosef himself. A spoiled brat? A tsaddik? A genius? An opportunist? A gorgeous hunk who knows how to play people and puts on airs as a moral man? All or some or none of the above?
When we first meet him, Yosef tells his father of his brothers’ wrongdoings. A tattler. On the other hand, he, who was the son of one of the two main wives (Rachel and Leah), palled around with the children of the concubines, Bilha and Zilpa – something not usually done. Why? How did he show this camaraderie? We don’t know. Bad or good? Or both?
In Potiphar’s home in Egypt, Yosef lets everyone know that he is above them all, which does not endear him to the other workers. Yet he fights off the wife Potifar’s wife’s sexual advances.
And in the final scene of this week’s reading, in jail, Yosef insists that his ability to interpret dreams is God’s work, not his own. Is this maturity? Is this recognition that his modus operandi until that point has alienated more than it has harmonized his relations? We don’t know. We can only judge by his actions.
Parenting when faced with four wives and a dozen vilde chayas, chance or fateful meetings, owning up to mistakes, changing your public persona – these are only four of the main topics we meet in this parsha. We will have another three weeks to watch Yosef develop and interact with those around him, as he rises in the world and in the process makes Pharaoh the owner of the whole of Egypt.
Not bad for a nice Jewish boy in the diaspora.