Our Haywire Family of Origin
Parashat VaYeshev, Genesis 37:1–40:23
by David Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem
I cannot read this parasha without getting a little judgmental. Okay, we all know this is not acceptable, but I try to read the text and then search between the lines to figure out what went haywire in the family of our ancestors that caused so much tension and so many devastating situations. The possibilities are many. The Torah is brutally honest in its recollection of events, and our emotions will be stoked as we read the portions over the next few weeks. I know that my emotions come alive as I read these chapters.
We have a lot of textbook conflicts: let me start with one that rankles me. And Joseph spoke very negatively about them [his half-brothers via Bilha and Zilpa] to his father (Gen 37:2b).
Presumably, Joseph spoke the truth. He accurately relayed the shortcomings in his half-brothers’ work ethic to the “boss” (Jacob). However, sometimes speaking the truth (especially in the Middle East) makes you the problem! No one likes being tattled on, and generally speaking, tattlers are shunned and they reap plenty of scorn. This was the case for Joseph, even 3,800 years ago. And indeed, Joseph became the family’s identified “problem”, and the object of their negative feelings: So they [the older brothers] hated him [Joseph] so much that they were not willing to speak peacefully to him (37:4b).
Well-known Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Riskin opines that Joseph acted arrogantly, tried to dominate his brothers, and was encouraged in this by his father’s favoritism. He acted as if he was his “brothers’ keeper”, as we see in 37:14, where Jacob’s own words set him apart from his brothers. He is no longer a younger colleague, subordinate to his brothers’ instructions; he is not solely a shepherd, but is their supervisor (or reporter):
He [Jacob] instructed him, “Go now, check how your brothers are doing, and how the flocks are. Then come back to me and let me know.” So he sent him [Joseph] from the Hevron Valley, and he approached Shechem (37:14).
Joseph takes the role of supervising his older half-brothers as he finds them around Dotan. So perhaps they felt they had good reason to not particularly care for the behavior of Rachel’s son. Even Joseph’s dreams indicated that he thought himself more prominent than all his older brothers:
[The brothers stated:] “So, are you going to be ruler over us? Are you going to really govern us?” As a result of his dreams and their meanings, they hated him all the more (37:8b).
More fuel is added to the fires of jealousy and hatred: His brothers saw that of all the siblings, their father [Jacob] loved him [Joseph] the most (37:4a).
And as a result of these family dynamics: So his brothers became jealous of him (37:11).
The set-up for the rest of our narrative is complete. But is this narrative totally negative? I want to say that both for Joseph and his brothers, and for us some 3,800 years later, there is much to gain from the events in our parasha. There were positive outcomes in their lives. We can learn some important lessons from our parasha, too. Here is one I have learned:
As a father and grandfather of males, including twins among them, I have learned that my main role as the family elder (and I do mean age-wise here) is to encourage, enable, nurture, educate and help “my boys” walk in their God-given destiny. If I can always keep that in mind, it really seems to help me. I want to show this to them, model it and do it. I am not saying that Jacob didn’t do this; he may have tried, but inevitably complicated emotions and family dynamics entered the situation.
Of course, upsets occur in families with the best of intentions. Perceptions of favoritism, giving more goods to one child/grandchild than to another, spending time with one more than another, and so on, does happen. The reason behind the action can be misconstrued as well. We are human, and these emotions and perceptions will always be present to some extent. Yet this parasha helps to center me, and affirms the priorities of being a father, grandfather, and hopefully a positive and influential person in my family.
The bottom line for Jacob, our ancestor, was that God was behind the scenes, directing the events of history. The hard and tough events of the family history, with the family dynamics, did not overcome God’s promises. He even intervened and fixed some of the hard events (such as Jacob finding Joseph after believing he was dead). No matter what happened, God was truly in control, making sure that the family would survive and that his promises would continue on, alive and well, through Israel and his sons.
If we look at Jewish history, the same applies. No matter what our people have suffered (and we have indeed suffered continually), God is in control, making sure the “family” will survive, and that his promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will be fulfilled.
Our parasha can encourage us greatly us as we deal with family dynamics. We try to the best of our ability, according to the instructions of the Torah and with the love that God puts in our lives, to truly help our family members. Seeing the active hand of God in Jacob’s family encourages me, even if I still look for more reasons for Jacob’s problems! God is active, and while we may make mistakes, have our foibles and sometimes fail in our objectives, he is behind the scenes, moving us forward, on to his end goals.
All Scripture references are author's translation.
Illustration: "Joseph's Coat" by Brooke Sendele