The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Structuring Yosef’s Rise and Fall
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
INTRODUCTION – THE TOLEDOT OF YA’AKOV
Yitzchak’s death and burial by “his
sons, Eisav and Yaakov,” the Torah concludes the final third of Sefer Bereishit
with the toledot - the generations of the two brothers. Though it will concentrate almost
entirely on the fate of Yaakov’s family, the Torah begins by telling us about
the fate of Eisav. In a lengthy account, Chapter 36, we receive the impression
of a man whose lineage and destiny are nothing but overwhelming successes. His three wives bear him five sons while
he dwells in Canaan, and his tribe increases even more upon his voluntary
removal to the land of Seir. The Biblically significant number twelve
as his line produces twelve chieftains (the thirteenth chieftain Amalek, born of
a concubine, becomes the permanent hereditary enemy of the Children of
Israel). As these chieftains become
kings, we sense that Eisav is flourishing, even without the Divine promise. Not so Yaakov. When the Torah focuses upon him, the
contrast could not be greater:
Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s wanderings, in the land of Canaan (37:1).
is well established, Yaakov dwells – perhaps prematurely – in a land of
wanderings. More puzzling is the second verse:
these are the generations (toledot) of Yaakov: Yosef, seventeen years old, was
shepherding the flock [of?] his brothers, and he was a lad with [to?] the sons
of Bilhah and of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought an evil report of
them to his father.
Eisav, of whom we receive an immediate accounting of his descendents, when we
come across Yaakov’s generations (toledot), we are confronted with the
story of the young Yosef. Rashi
insists that every mention of the word toledot is understood as
and reads our verse, “These are the accounts of [the generations] of
Yaakov.” His interpretation is
difficult, as we have already seen several appearances of the word toledot
in Sefer Bereishit followed by a story, not a genealogical listing (see the
footnotes for how Rashi explains those occurrences). The Ibn Ezra, however,
understands that the word toledot can refer to significant occurrences in
a character’s life. The Ramban
understands our verse in the same way that Rashi interpreted the word
toledot‘s appearance by Yitzchak,
that the ensuing story concerns all of Yaakov’s descendants, including the
seventy descendants to be mentioned in Chapter 46.
We can suggest a different explanation why the word toledot is not
followed by a listing of Yaakov’s children by pointing out several unique
factors about this introduction. We are not, unlike previous occurrences (see
Noach and Yitzchak), at the beginning of Yaakov’s career, neither are we about
to witness the birth of his children.
Instead, with Yaakov attempting to settle the land, we find our thoughts
drifting forward – who will assume the mantle of leadership next; and perhaps
more strikingly, what will be the fate of the brothers that are rejected. Will they too, like Yishmael and Eisav
before them, leave the land and the Divine promise behind them? Or will Yaakov manage (or even attempt
to) keep his entire family structure united towards the Divine purpose. Rereading the text with this question in
mind, we discover that the text clearly intends to convey the impression that
Yaakov has but one single son:
“These are the generations of Yaakov. Yosef …” (37:2).
WHO IS YOSEF – FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Yosef’s introduction, the Torah immediately points to the problems of leadership
and unity within Yaakov’s family.
Our initial impressions are not promising – Yosef is introduced as a
shepherd, connected to only half of his siblings, and as a tattletale. The next verses describe a lad favored
by his father, despised by his brothers, and a dreamer who dreams of authority
and supremacy. The portents ahead
are ominous, even if Yaakov is unable to see them – a fitting turnaround for
someone who took advantage of his father’s inability to see (both at the time of
blessing, and in the understanding of his children).
examine each of the Torah’s original descriptions of Yosef. First, he is a shepherd, someone who in
theory, guides and rules (if only over sheep). However, the text can be read as
being seventeen years old, shepherded his brothers with the sheep though
he was only a lad, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives.
whether or not he is tending (ruling?) his brothers or his sheep, Yosef only
accompanies his half-brothers, the children of the concubines Bilhah and
Zilpah. He remains apart from the
sons of Leah, his natural rivals for the leadership. The schism in the family between
Yaakov and the sons of Leah, which began during the episode of the rape of Dinah
due to Yaakov’s muted response to and criticism of the brothers’ reaction to the
crisis has now advanced to poison the relationships among the next
generation. In last week’s class,
we paraphrased a comment of the Or haChayim haKadosh, to ask a simple thought
question: If Dinah had been the
daughter of Rachel, and not Leah, would Yaakov have kept silent upon hearing the
news of the assault of his daughter, or later rebuke the brothers for their
actions? We tend to think that
Yaakov would have led the charge against the inhabitants of Shechem himself.
Whether or not this is true,
we suspect that this is indeed the brothers’ impression.
More pressing are the charges that Yosef was, indeed, a tattletale. We can only guess at Yosef’s motivations
– was a he a ‘spy’ on Yaakov’s behalf, charged, in his role as ‘shepherd,’ with reporting his brothers’ misdeeds to
his father? Perhaps he sincerely
desired to reform his brothers’ and raise their moral level. One could also envision him acting on
his own initiative; tattling due to simple naiveté or worse, libeling his
brothers with reports of his own devising.
In a family where apparently only one brother will be selected to carry
the Divine blessing, it’s not hard to fathom the poisonous relationships that
exist between siblings.
The Torah not only does not reveal why Yosef tattled to his father; it
does not disclose what he said, or even if it was true. Attempting to ascertain the Divine sense
of justice, we note that within two chapters, Yosef will be the report of two
false claims. The brothers’ will
tell Yaakov that wild beasts devoured Yosef; and Potiphar’s wife will accuse
Yosef of attempted rape, reports the reader knows to be blatantly false. Traditional commentary also doubted the
veracity of Yosef’s report, per Rashi:
reported to his father that they used to eat flesh cut of from a living animal,
that they treated the sons of the concubines with disrespect, and that they were
suspected of living in an immoral sexual manner. Therefore, he was punished
similarly: For stating that they
used to eat flesh off living animals, the Torah stated, “they slaughtered a
goat” after they sold him and they did not eat its flesh while it still lived
(v. 31). For relating that they
used to call his brothers slaves, “Yosef was sold for a slave.” And because he accused them of
immorality, “And his master’s wife cast her eyes upon him …” (Rashi, ad.
Are there any textual clues that can help us decipher what precisely
Yosef said? The Hebrew word for
evil report, ‘dibah,’ appears in only one other place in the Torah –by
the episode of the spies and entering the Land of Israel. There, it states that the spies “spread
an evil report of the land” among the people (Bamidbar 13:32). In additional to being false, ‘dibah’
also refers to words that were said. Was there anything that the brothers had
previously said that had gone unreported to Yaakov? We return to the aftermath of Dinah’s
rape and the angry confront between Yaakov and Shimon and Levi:
Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have troubled me, to make me odious unto
the inhabitants of the land … and I being few in number, they will gather
themselves together against me and smite me, and I shall be destroyed, I and my
they said, “Like a whore! should our sister be treated?!” (34:30-31)
reader notes that while the Torah states that Yaakov spoke to his children, it
does not state that they spoke “to Yaakov.” Perhaps they responded directly. However, we can also suggest that they
humbly held their tongues in the presence of their father’s rebuke, and only
upon leaving the tent, closing the tent’s flap behind them, do they furiously
spew out their anger. If so, then
does Yosef take it upon himself to report their discontent to Yaakov?
A SON OF HIS OLD AGE
rift, Yosef remains Yaakov’s favorite.
We sense that this is due to his being Rachel’s son. Perhaps, Yaakov sees in Yosef the
dreamer a reflection of himself (being no stranger to dreams). Interestingly, the Torah brings an
unexpected reason for this preference: “ki ben zekunim hu lo” - he was
the son of his old age. The Ramban
explains the difficulties this creates as follows:
is, the son born to him in his old age.
The Onkelos translated: “He
was a wise son to him,” for all that he had learned from Shem and Eiver he
transmitted to him. Another
interpretation: his facial features were similar to Yaakov’s. This is Rashi’s language. Rabbi Avraham (Ibn Ezra) explains it
this way: “Because he was the
son of his old age – for he begot him when he was ninety-one years old. They likewise called Benyamin a child
of his old age (44:20)…
opinion, this is not correct! … All of his sons were born to him during his old
age! Yissachar and Zevulun were no
more than a year or two older than Yosef.
correct interpretation appears to me to be that it was the customs of the elders
to take one of their younger sons to be with them to attend to them. He would constantly lean on his arm,
never being separated from them, and he would be called ben zekunav
because he attended him in his old age.
Not Yaakov took Yosef for this purpose, and he was with him constantly …
and this is why it states “ki ben zekunim hu lo” – and he was to
him (to serve him) a son of his old age.
has pointed out the difficulties in the literal interpretation of ben
zekunim, for all of Yaakov’s children were born after Yaakov reached his
nineties. Like Rashi and Onkelos
before him, the Ramban interprets ben zekunim as referring to either a
specific quality of Yosef, or the special relationship that existed between
them. Interpreting ben zekunim
figuratively, we can suggest that Torah labels Yosef as the child who is the
solution to the problem of Yaakov’s old age. Like Avraham and Yitzchak before him, the advent of old age means that
Yaakov must choose for himself a successor, and apparently, Yaakov believes
Yosef best suited for the mantle of leadership. This makes the ketonet passim,
the ornamented tunic that Yaakov gave Yosef, more than the sentimental gift of
an old man for his favorite son. It is the garb of rule, a sign of Yosef’s
elevation over the others.
what motivated Yaakov’s decision.
Having lived through the repercussions of a struggle between parental
preferences and the resulting fratricidal enmity, surely Yaakov would have done
everything in his power to maintain the wholeness of his family. Rabbinic thought was scathing in its
criticism of Yaakov’s behavior:
Chama bar Giora said in the name of Rav:
“A person should never favor one son among his sons, for because of the
value of two selas (coins) of a striped garment that Yaakov gave to Yosef
above his other sons, his brothers were jealous of him, and the matter was
brought about so that our forefathers were brought down to Egypt (Talmud Shabbat
criticism ignores the pressing problem of succession. The eldest, Reuven, disqualified himself
with his dalliance with Bilhah.
Shimon and Levi are, in his estimation, hotheaded zealots. Given the alternatives available, Yaakov
doesn’t appear to have much choice.
Perhaps, by appointing Yosef while he was still alive, Yaakov hoped to
settle the issue of succession peacefully while he still has the authority. It may be a gamble, and we suspect
Yaakov knows it.
STRUCTURING THE STORY
questions remains: First, does the
clothing fit? Will Yosef grow into
his role as leader, able to unite the brothers around him? Or will he “lose his
(both literally and figuratively)?
Second, if Yosef proves unworthy of the leadership over the brothers, how
will Yaakov react? A structural
analysis of the first episode of Chapter 37 provides us with an answer.
contains two major episodes: Yosef’s dreams and the reactions of his brothers,
and the brothers’ attack on and sale of Yosef near Dotan. Both episodes are structured
chiastically, with a symmetrical telling around a central axis. The first section, Yosef’s dreams and
the reactions they provoke, is structured as follows:
Introduction: The toledot of Yaakov in
– Yaakov’s (Israel’s) preferential treatment of
Yosef (v. 3)
B - The
brothers’ hatred of Yosef (v. 4a)
C – The
brother’s refusal to speak to Yosef (v. 4b)
D – The
brother’s reaction to Yosef’s first dream (v. 5)
E – Yosef’s
first dream (v. 6-7)
F – The
brothers' hatred of Yosef deepens (v. 8)
E’ – Yosef’s
second dream (v. 9-10a)
Yaakov’s reaction to the second dream (v. 10b)
C’ – Yaakov
rebukes Yosef (v. 10c)
B’ – The
brother’s (continued) hatred/envy of Yosef (11a)
– Yaakov guards (ponders) the matter (11b)
tenure as leader failed miserably is unquestionable. Even had Yosef been prudent and
politically attuned, we suspect that the brothers, still smarting from Yaakov’s
rebuke over the Dinah episode, would have rejected any attempt to impose a son
of Rachel over them. However,
Yosef’s complete incompetence exacerbates the situation beyond repair. Without analyzing the dreams too deeply,
we are struck by how oblivious Yosef appears to the deteriorating relationship
between him and his brothers.
Seemingly unaware of simple prudence and tact, Yosef blithely reports his
visions of grandeur in front of his seething siblings. (Note that the Torah describes the
brothers’ reactions before Yosef tells them his dream!)
What is significant is Yaakov’s intervention after the second dream. Until now, Yaakov has demonstrated the
ability to maintain his silence when necessary - even Reuben’s affair with
Bilhah does not provoke a reaction.
Suddenly, Yaakov actively rebukes and scorns his visionary son. Whether this is a tactical step on
Yaakov’s part, to deflect some of the rage that the brothers are feeling, or an
attempt to teach Yosef the need to be circumspect in his utterances, is
unclear. The reader wonders if
Yaakov is reconsidering his clearly disastrous choice.
The careful reader, however, notes two additional details. First, the text portrays Yaakov as
saying one thing publicly; privately, it appears that he does grant the dreams
some credence. More importantly, it
is Yaakov, not Yosef, who actively provides the dreams with a familial
interpretation. While the numbers
make the interpretation plausible, it ignores a new, dangerous detail. In the dream, the heavenly bodies
declare Yosef’s greatness (as opposed to declaring the glory of G-d). Canaan
was not the locale for where nature is brought to her knees to serve man. From his youth, Yosef dreams like an
the most merciful eyes, Yaakov’s attempt to anoint Yosef as a successor was an
unmitigated fiasco. The brothers,
already irate with what they suspect was unfair treatment during the affair of
Dinah, now find their worst nightmares confirmed. Even worse, Yosef makes himself
repugnant to them, with his constant harping, tattling, and megalomaniac visions
of grandeur. Will Yaakov be able to
recreate the sense of the family unity that characterized his dealing with
Lavan? At what price will peace be
restored? With these questions lingering in the background, Chapter 37 continues
with the sending of Yosef to Shechem.
 Every family that demonstrates its full growth in Sefer Bereishit does
so with 12 children: Nachor
(Ch. 22), Yishmael
(Ch. 25), and Eisav
(Ch. 36). Small wonder that the Rabbis understand
Yaakov’s anguish upon the apparent loss of Yosef as more than simply the grief
of a father for his beloved son, but the recognition that his purpose, to create
the first family in Bereishit where all members are capable of receiving the
“blessing of Avraham” has been irrevocably harmed.
 The textual discrepancy between Yaakov’s settling (Va-Yeishev)
and his father’s wanderings (megurei) is perhaps what provokes Rashi’s
famous comment here that Yaakov wished to dwell in security and quiet, and was
therefore punished with the troubles of Yosef.
 Bereishit 6:9, 25:19. When
a list of children does not immediately follow, something must be interpolated
into the text, whether a blessing for a righteous person (Noach), or the birth
of those children (Yitzchak).
 As does the Rashbam, in a famous comment in 37:2, where he outlines the
theoretical underpinnings of his interpretive methodology.
 We have already seen Yaakov split his family in two when confronted with
potential war; the apparent willingness of Yaakov to sacrifice some family
members to save others must be developed further on in the story.
 The question concerns the use of the particle ‘et, which is both
the sign of the direct object, but can also mean ‘with.’ The verb to shepherd, ro’eh,
generally requires the use of this particle with its direct object (see 37:12 –
And his brothers went to tend (shepherd) the flocks). Here, the particle is connected instead
with his brothers – “‘et echav.”
 The Abrabanel interprets the word dibah as what others spoke
about the brothers: “He desired
that his brothers would achieve perfection in their character traits, and
therefore he didn’t tell his father what despicable things he saw, for that is
not dibah, nor did he lie G-d forbid, for then it would state that “he
brought forth,” and not simply “brought.”
Instead, he would tell Yaakov what the city’s inhabitants were saying
about the brothers, without attempting to verify the reports. However, he did not reveal this in the
marketplace, for that is slander, but instead told it (privately) to “their
father,” so that he would rebuke them.
 The only other textual reference that sheds light on the nature of the
garment comes from the story of the rape of Tamar (Shmuel 2 13), where it is
said to be the garb of the virgin princesses. The Hertz commentator notes:
“We now know from the Tombs of the Bene Hassein in Egypt that in the Patriarchal
age, Semitic chiefs wore coats of many colors as an insignia of ruler ship …
Yaakov, in giving him a coat of many colors, marked him for the chieftainship
of the tribes at his father’s death.”
 Indeed, Yosef will be stripped of his clothing three times in the text.
First, his brothers remove him from his leadership by tearing off his tunic when
they attempt to murder him. The
second time, Potiphar’s wife grasps his cloak during her failed seduction.
Finally, he is shorn of his prison garb when brought before Pharoah. Ironically, only as a prince of
Egypt does Yosef find the clothing
that will suit him perfectly.
 Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, in his Five Addresses, notes that this
Egyptian motif is already present in the first dream. Sheaves of wheat are not the fare of
shepherds, but of the agricultural society along the Nile River.