Torah Thoughts – Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, וַיֵּשֶׁב v’yeshev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23, 

Now Jacob dwelled (v’yeshev) in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.

Genesis 37:1

From the onset we see an interesting comparison between Jacob and his father: Jacob dwelled where his father sojourned. The inference is that unlike Isaac who sojourned, גּוּר, in the land of Canaan, living there as a newcomer and not really settling in, Jacob יֵּשֶׁב yeshev, he sat down, he settled in with the intention of staying. Rashi seems to think that Jacob not only settle in but that he was settled, he was at peace. The conflict with Esau that he had been dreading was past, and the future looked pretty good, well for a short season anyway. The seeds of discontent that began back in Padan-aran while with Uncle Laban, would soon become a full-blown storm that would separate Jacob’s family for years to come. The coming storm is centered around Joseph, the first born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel and the one on whom most of remaining chapters of Genesis focus. 

Genesis 37:2 sets the tone of the upcoming chapters, “These are the genealogies of Jacob. When Joseph was 17 years old (he was a youth) ….” Why was it important to acknowledge that Joseph was a youth? Without a doubt, Joseph was not the only notable youth mentioned in Scripture. Samuel was called by HaShem when he was but a lad (1 Samuel 3) and David was probably 17 or 18 years of age when he fought Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Likewise, Jeremiah was thought to be 17 when he was called to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1) and it was a boy who donated his lunch from which Yeshua fed 5000 (John 6). It should never be said that youth cannot love or serve God because of their age. It was not necessarily Joseph’s age that got him into trouble, but the way in which he handled situations while he was a youth.

As his father’s favorite son, Joseph received special treatment (Genesis 37:3) that did nothing to bolster his relationship with his brothers. Additionally, Joseph often brought Jacob bad reports about the actions of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 37:2) which lowered his popularity figures even more. Finally, Joseph had a couple of dreams, in both of which he was center stage with his family apparently subservient to him. Had Joseph done as Mariam when she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), instead of sharing them with those who already had much against him, the story may have played out a little differently.

Sforno, an Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician observes that,

…the Torah mentions Joseph’s youthfulness to illustrate that it was precisely because he was youngand did not foresee the consequences, that he sinned by telling tales about his brothers. Thought Joseph was brilliant, the Sages observed that in general, לֹא בְּדַרְדְּקֵי עֵצָה, there is no wise counsel in children (Shabbos 89b).

Meir Zlotowitz. ArtScroll Tanakh Series, Bereishis Vol 1(b). Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1986, p. 1612.

Robert Alter, an American professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that

…this whole speech shows us a young Joseph who is self-absorbed, blithely assuming everyone will be fascinated by the details of his dreams.”

Robert Alter. “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary” on Genesis 37:6. Apple Books.

There is no question that as Joseph would later tell his brothers “…you yourselves planned evil against me. God planned it for good, in order to bring about what it is this day—to preserve the lives of many people,” (Genesis 50:20). And there is no question that in Mizraim (Egypt), Joseph’s dreams were realized; his brothers and his father bowed down to him, but as the Prime Minister of Egypt and not as their brother and son. But if Joseph’s youthful zeal had been tempered slightly, and if he had a better reign on the words of his mouth, the end may have been the same but the journey radically different. As it were, the life experiences that Joseph endured from the pit to the righthand side of the throne, changed the impetuous young man to one who considered situations and how to deal with them while trusting in the God of his fathers. One lesson to be learned from this is that parents should not play favorites with their children, especially in blended family situations. In other words, if one child gets a special tunic, all should get something special as well. 

In closing, here are a few words of caution from Rav Shaul, first concerning the raising up of leaders, “He (or she) must not be a new believer, or he (or she) may become puffed up and fall into the same judgment as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). Joseph was given a lot of responsibility as well as favor, seemingly without much oversight. Whether youth or middle aged, one should not be elevated to a position beyond that for which they are trained and qualified, lest they be set up for a fall. And secondly, combining a word to Timothy and another to the believers in Rome, Rav Shaul instructs all of us to “…do nothing out of favoritism … for there is no partiality with God” (1 Timothy 5:21 & Romans 2:11).

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

This week’s Haftarah reading is from Amos 2:6 – 3:8 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is Matthew 5:1-16.

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