Vayeishev - Risk for Reward
Thanks to Donnie Osmond, the world is quite familiar with the story of Joseph and his brothers. While we know the exquisite details of the “Coat of many colors,” what we often overlook is the incredible character development Joseph and his brothers take along the way, beginning in Vayeishev, where we are introduced to the arrogant and overly enthusiastic younger brother.
At the outset, Joseph is rather chutzpadik in his declaring his future supremacy over his brothers, using dreams to explore the future power dynamics of the group. Dreams, in the days of Torah’s construction, were often considered to be a form of divine communication, with a dreamer said to have abilities to interpret the future and its consequences. His hubris eventually leads his brothers to sell him into slavery, leading the children of Israel into Egypt and their future in the book of Exodus. (Spoiler alert…) But throughout the journey, beginning this week, we see the character development of many of those connected to Joseph, depicting the limits and barriers for their advocacy of their relative.
Jacob, the patriarch of the family, deserves an ample supply of blame for what happens to his son. Jacob, a product of parents who play favorites in their own regard, perpetuates the favoritism that led to conflict between himself and his brother, lavishing gifts upon Joseph and singling him out from amongst his siblings. When Joseph takes this favoritism too far, we read in Genesis 37, “‘What,’ he [Jacob] said to him [Joseph], ‘is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to one, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?’ So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.” (Genesis 37:10-11) Jacob calls out Joseph’s bad behavior, but he also is wary of it. He demonstrates an awareness of two key elements: first, he sees that Joseph likely has some kind of divine connection that is not to be ignored outright, while also taking note of the animosity of his other sons toward Joseph. Jacob notices, but he is either unwilling or unable to take the necessary action to help staunch the bleeding in the difficult relationship. While Jacob takes small action in order to try to assuage the concerns of the rest of his children, he does not sufficiently get involved to solve the inter-relational issues that are clearly coming to the fore.
A few verses later, the brothers decide that it is time to do away with their brother. At first their intention is to kill him themselves, but Reuben, the oldest brother intervenes. The text says, “When Reuben heard it [the plan to kill Joseph], he tried to save him from them. He said, ‘Let us not take his life.’ And Reuben went on, ‘Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves.’ For he intended to save him from them and restore him to his father.” (Gen. 37:21-22) It is difficult to determine the motivations in this short excerpt. Reuben is, at the same time, serving many different masters. He is, at least on some level, defending Joseph from the hand of their brothers. He is also hoping to spare his father the suffering of losing a son. But Reuben is also clearly looking after his own self-interests. He has the opportunity to play the role of hero by rescuing Joseph for Jacob, while also hedging his bets with his brothers. Reuben does not come right out and defend Joseph, because the brothers are already mutinous and ready for blood. Instead, he splits the difference, supporting the brothers in their pursuit of vengeance while also ensuring that he himself does not incur their wrath.
If this wasn’t enough of an example to get the point across, the Torah continues by describing Judah’s role in the story. While Joseph sits in a pit to be left for dead, Judah speaks up, saying, “‘What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.’” (Gen. 37:26-27) Judah is, it would seem, looking to profit from the sale of his brother. But he is also ensuring that his brother will live, demonstrating a small act of kindness with the hopes that, if he were to make it to Egypt, maybe he would be able to prosper away from the aggression of his brothers.
In all three cases, Jacob, Reuben, and Judah all take action that helps Joseph in a limited sense. They all advocate for his well-being, while at the same time doing very little to turn the anger or angst of the brothers onto themselves. This is an understandable form of self-interest. We all are willing to stand up for the needs of others, as long as it doesn’t too thoroughly infringe on our own desires for safety, health, and prosperity. We will go to a certain length in order to stand up for the needs of others, as long as it doesn’t begin to impede on our own successes.
The world today has more opportunities for advocacy than the Torah could even imagine. Ally-ship is an essential component to the further of LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, anti-discrimination and anti-sexism legislation and more. Fundamental to the desire to create change in our society is the need for members of the privileged group to be willing to fight to give up some of their power while also helping to give that power to a larger section of the community. But that work can often lead to the need for putting one’s own entitlement on the line, risking the security that is inherent to privilege. In our Torah portion this week, we see the ineffective ways in which people half-heartedly advocate in a situation they know to be wrong. We see what it looks like to try to prevent harm without giving up a little bit of one’s own power, and in the end, Joseph is still sold into slavery, is still done ill by his brothers. Who knows how the story would have been different if Jacob took a more authoritative role in the leading of his family, or if Reuben had more enthusiastically defended the well-being of his brother, or if Judah had been willing to get more than a profit out of the relationship. But in any case, all seem to be foiled in their attempt to defend Joseph, even in the smallest ways they undertake.
Jews in North America have often encountered a strange role in our relationship to advocacy work. As Jews, we are no strangers to persecution, and are called by our covenant to pursue justice with conviction. Tikkun Olam is fundamental to our religious identity, and we have spent much of our history working to try to bring those values to the fore. But, at the same time, a great many of us have the ability to “pass” as white, to blend into the societal standard of privilege. Nobody HAS to know that I am Jewish unless I tell them so, and in that regard I am able to enjoy a certain quality of life without ever having to admit my identity as a minority group. Therefore, it can be a rather momentous task to give up that privilege in exchange for advocating for those who so badly need to be treated well. But no real change is possible if we continue to enjoy the safety and security of our own blessings while gingerly and tangentially advocating for the needs of others. We need to be willing to put skin in the game, to invest in the success and well-being of others in order to ensure we do more than just participate on the edges of the issues. Jacob, Reuben, and Judah go through significant change over the course of the Joseph saga, developing their ability to stand up to power and be willing to put themselves on the line for the betterment of others. And in so doing, we learn that there is no ability to make change in the world if we are unwilling to risk our own welfare and our own privilege in order to perpetuate those rights for others.