Who is Joseph?

Who is Joseph? December 18, 2023

Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

By Naomi Gurt Lind

These past few parashiot, we have been deeply engaged with Joseph, that maddening, inspiring, outsized personality whose story looms large over both Genesis and Exodus and yet who remains nameless in our liturgy. That in itself is curious, that he gets four parashiot (maybe four and a half) and yet not a word in our daily prayers.

Who is this fascinating and difficult character?

Joseph has a rich and complicated emotional life and a unique temperament. As a younger man, he tends toward arrogance, between his telling tales to Jacob about his big brothers, and his self-centered dreams, and of course, his preening around in his special coat from his father. Like a classic favorite child, he believes his own publicity a little too much and assumes, both awake and asleep, that the world revolves around him. I’m not recommending throwing your annoying siblings into a pit or selling them into servitude, but you can see where the brothers are coming from.

Yet the narcissism is only one aspect of Joseph’s character. Even after he becomes a powerful figure in Egypt he continues to seek his father’s approval, as when, after revealing himself to his brothers, he sends them to bring Jacob from Canaan to Egypt and instructs them to tell him all about his high status in the land of Egypt. His insecurity, despite having been the golden child, is fascinating—and probably a good lesson for parents about holding boundaries for our children even as we love them unconditionally.

Just after Jacob receives the news that Joseph is still alive and has reached a position of prominence in Egypt, we read:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת׃
It is plenty! My son Joseph is still alive. Let me go and see him before I die.
(Genesis 45:28)

It seems that despite all the advantages that his brothers resent him for, Joseph remains heart-wrenchingly human in his insecurity and need to please his father.

Joseph is also a person of great determination and resourcefulness. Despite the abuse he experiences as a young man, and despite the longing for family, despite the enslavement and the wrongful imprisonment, he becomes a role model in many ways. This is a person who overcomes his hard times and cleverly uses his skills to better himself and improve his position. Joseph, despite everything that has happened to him, never gives up. Even when he’s in jail, his charisma enables him to rise to a position of importance, and he uses his skill at dream interpretation to make himself indispensable. When opportunity strikes, he is Joseph-on-the-spot to take what advantage he can, and to plant the seeds with Pharaoh’s cup-bearer that will eventually lead to his release.

Once freed, he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and adds advice for how to manage the coming famine. Because his advice is sound, he rises in the ranks to become second in command to Pharaoh himself. When opportunity knocks, Joseph opens the door wide.

When his brothers knock, he sees the opportunity to test their loyalty. And once satisfied that they have grown up too, he opens the door wide for them as well. In this week’s parashah, Vayigash he finally reunites with his family, and rather than holding a grudge against his brothers, he models forgiveness:

וְעַתָּה  אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם׃
Now, don’t be distressed and don’t blame yourselves that you sold me here, for it was to save life that God sent me here before you. (Breishit 45:5)

Joseph’s ability to level up and take a higher perspective about what happened in the past makes for one of the most moving scenes in the Torah.

It’s not only the strength of character to forgive. Joseph has the capacity to perceive that even the harshest mistreatment—and the misfortune that followed it—can be composted into a higher purpose. His behavior in this scene contains a powerful teaching that echoes throughout our literature and throughout our history. It is not for nothing that one of the most persecuted peoples on earth, a tiny fraction of the world’s population, has produced some of the most important scientific, artistic, and philosophical work. Like Joseph, we don’t give up; thֿat ability to keep moving forward in impossible circumstances is one we can and do emulate, as we’ve seen all too well in recent weeks.

These, then, are some of the reasons Joseph is so important at eye level.

Yet he is also important at sky level. The Joseph story, even his brothers’ childhood betrayal, is part of the architecture of our tradition. His being sold (which we saw two weeks ago, in Parashat Vayeshev) into a life of slavery set into motion one of the foundational narratives of our people.

If Joseph hadn’t gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh wouldn’t have been prepared for the famine and there would have been widespread starvation and destruction; perhaps our tradition would have ended before it started. If he hadn’t been able to forgive his brothers and settle them in Goshen near him to ride out the long years of scarcity, the Israelites would not have gained a foothold in Egypt and grown numerous. If Joseph hadn’t had such a reputation, there would not eventually have arisen a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and the entire tradition of liberation and redemption would not be ours.

In simple terms: no Joseph, no Egypt. No Egypt, no Exodus.

Indeed the foundations of this architecture are way back in Lech L’cha, when God tells then-childless Abraham in chapter 15 that his descendants will be enslaved in a land not their own for 400 years and that God will redeem them.

Which brings us back to the question of why Joseph isn’t in the siddur. I would argue that he actually is, just not by name. In Mishnah Brachot 1:5, the Sages discuss this verse from Deuteronomy:

לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ
In order to remember the day of your departure from Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy 16:3)

The Sages of the Mishnah wonder together about that phrase כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ (all the days of your life) and whether it dictates recalling Yetziat Mitzrayim (the departure from Egypt) in evening prayers, as we now do. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya notes Ben Zoma’s interpretation: that the כל makes the difference. He says:

יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַלֵּילוֹת.
Yemei chayecha indicates the days. KOL yemei chayecha indicates also the nights.

וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ:
And the Sages continue: Yemei chayecha is this world. KOL yemei chayecha in order to bring the Days of Moshiach.

Not only does the story of enslavement and eventual triumph, which has Joseph’s fingerprints all over it, get mentioned in the siddur on a daily and nightly basis, the mitzvah of recalling it has the power to bring about ultimate redemption.

I would argue there is another, subtler way, that Joseph influences our liturgy. Joseph is a big cryer, probably the character with whom the root letters bet chaf heh—to weep—are most associated. Joseph has big feelings, and when he reveals his true identity to his brothers—not as the powerful man in Egypt who holds their very lives in his hands but as their long-lost brother—the river of sadness and longing for family that he’s kept in check all this time overflows its banks בִּבְכִי וַיִּתֵּן וַיִּתֵּן אֶת־קֹלוֹ and he gives his voice to weeping. (Genesis 45:2) Contrary to 21st century American culture, which regards emotion with suspicion at best, our Jewish tradition valorizes it and regards it as a direct pathway to the Divine.

We learn in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a) that from the moment the Temple was destroyed, the gates of tefillah (prayer) are locked. But, the Sages continue:

ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו, שערי דמעות לא ננעלו
Even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not locked.

With his resourcefulness, capacity to forgive, emotional openness, and ability to see the bigger canvas, the Joseph of the Bible—annoying Joseph, agonizingly human Joseph, overdramatic, spoiled Joseph—grows up and ends up being our teacher in manifold ways, and his influence echoes subtly and profoundly down the generations.


Naomi Gurt Lind is a Shanah Dalet student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She serves as Rabbinic Intern at Temple Ahavat Achim and Congregation Shirat Hayam and is on the teaching faculty for Hebrew College’s Open Circle Jewish Learning Adult Learning program. Her upcoming course “Ani Yosef: I am Joseph” deals with the Biblical character of Joseph. Learn more and register here.

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