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Torah Portion of the Week: A Matter of Interpretation

Parashat Vayeshev.

'Joseph Kisses Jacob,' an illustration from the 1897 book 'Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us.'
'Joseph Kisses Jacob,' an illustration from the 1897 book 'Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us.' Wikimedia Commons

During one of the many dramatic moments in Joseph’s life, his brothers will recall the actions attributed to them in this week’s portion, Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). This recollecting takes place in Egypt when the viceroy, Joseph, whom they fail to recognize, orders them to bring him their younger brother, Benjamin, who, like Joseph, is a son of Rachel, beloved wife of their father Jacob. The Torah then relates, “They said to one another, ‘Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us’” (Gen. 42:21).

Their memory of this incident reconstructs Joseph’s pleading, which is not described in this week’s reading. The brothers note that they indeed “looked on at his anguish,” but “paid no heed”: They saw his distress and ignored it. However, Reuben, the eldest, refuses to participate in this collective self-examination: “Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, ‘Did I not tell you, “Do no wrong to the boy”? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood’” (Gen. 42:22).

According to Reuben, the brothers’ sin was that they ignored not Joseph’s pleas but his counsel. Reuben’s attempt to prevent Joseph’s murder is recounted somewhat differently in Parashat Vayeshev: “But when Reuben heard it, 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’” (Gen. 37:21-22). The narrator then reveals the secret motive for Reuben’s proposal: “intending to save him from them and restore him to his father” (Gen. 37:22).

Contrary to what Reuben later claims, this week’s reading depicts how the brothers actually did heed his words: “and [they] took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it” (Gen. 37:24). But when Reuben returns, Joseph is not there: “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, ‘The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?’” (Gen. 37:29-30). Perhaps, with the passage of time, when Reuben recalls the incident, he attributes his failed rescue attempt to his brothers’ refusal to heed his warning.

The brothers link the memory of Joseph’s pleas to their interpretation, “Alas, we are being punished,” and their conclusion is, “That is why this distress has come upon us.” The crime they remember and for which they believe they are now being punished is not their attempt to kill Joseph or to sell him into slavery. What drives home the intensity of their act, what returns them to the scene of the crime and turns it into the cause of their present sorrows, is not the act itself but their indifference to Joseph’s pleas – which the text reports only later on.

This is one of the literary features that renders Joseph’s story a classic. But beyond the artistic aspect, there is also philosophical and theological significance embedded in the tale, deriving from the power of the commentary. This is not limited to the reader[‘s interpretation or the explanations of the narrator, but also to the interpretation that the characters themselves give to the events they are involved and even to their own actions, both while they are occurring and afterwards too. God is frequently evoked in the characters’ interpretations, explicitly or implicitly – for example, in the statement, “That is why this distress has come upon us.”

Joseph too associates his brothers’ mistreatment of him to what happens afterward: his rise to power in Egypt and his reunion with them. When Joseph reveals his identity, he tries to calm them down, promising not to seek revenge: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…. it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:5-8). Joseph interprets their evil act differently, reasoning that they were merely God’s tools.

These two interpretations clash. All the figures involved in the story seek to explain their distress by looking to another time frame: when the events or deeds that explain the current unease occurred. The chronological order the brothers cite is the opposite of what Joseph presents: They interpret their present sorrows as punishment for past deeds, while he consoles himself by describing those deeds as the instrument responsible for the things that happen to him later.

This reverse causation stems from different moral standpoints that embody a paradoxical dimension. Whereas sinners usually minimize the gravity of their actions, the opposite occurs here: The brothers describe their prior actions in a darker light than the narrator does, stressing their seriousness by citing their indifference to Joseph’s pleas. In contrast, Joseph minimizes the seriousness of their crime, almost dismissing it when he says he was sent to Egypt not by his brothers but by God.

This interpretive process continues until the very end of Joseph’s story. After Jacob’s death, the brothers fear that Joseph had waited for this moment and will now take revenge: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!’” (Gen. 50:15). They thus claim that their father commanded before his death – “So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly’” (Gen. 50:17) – and beg Joseph to fulfill Jacob’s last request: “Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.”

Joseph weeps (not for the first time), replying: “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:19-20). But this interpretation differs from his former explanation: Initially, Joseph claimed that, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Now he accuses his brothers, saying, “although you intended me harm.” Joseph still sees past events as a divine instrument affecting the present – “so as to bring about the present result” (Gen. 50:20) – but this time he notes his brothers’ evil intentions and thus the moral responsibility they share for their deeds. His rhetorical question, “Am I a substitute for God?” clarifies the division of roles in this tale: God determines the events, allowing mortals to interpret them.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.