Vayeishev: A Difficult Youth

April 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on November 22, 2010.)

Joseph, at age 17, was tending the flock with his brothers; but he was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, wives of his father.  And Joseph reported their slander, badly, to their father.  But Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a long-sleeved tunic (a.k.a. “coat of many colors”).  And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him and were not able to speak in peace.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:2-4)

na-ar = boy, young man, servant, attendant

The Joseph saga begins with this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“And he settled down”).  First the Torah introduces us to Joseph’s character and his position in the family at age 17.  Earlier in the Torah, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) married four women, but only loved one: Rachel.  Joseph and his brother Benjamin are the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the only children of Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin when Joseph was about 11 years old.

On one hand, Joseph is a shepherd like his brothers; on the other hand, his father gives him a tunic with sleeves so long they reach his palms—a garment designed for a prince, not a laborer.  His father loves Joseph; his brothers hate him.

Even before Joseph tells his family his first prophetic dream, we get two clues about his character in the verses translated above: “but he was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah”, and “Joseph reported their slander, badly, to their father”.

Why does the Torah say Joseph is a boy, a na-ar, with the sons of the former servants Bilhah and Zilpah—but, presumably, not when he is with the sons of Leah, Jacob’s first wife?  It’s not that Leah’s sons are all much older, while the sons of the lower-ranking wives are not fellow adolescents.   Asher, the youngest of the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, is about 24, and two of Leah’s sons are younger than he is.

Does Joseph act like a servant (another meaning of na-ar) when he is with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah?  I doubt it, given that his own mother, Rachel, had higher status, and their father, Jacob, treats Joseph as if he has the highest status of all.

Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400- 600 C.E., connects Joseph’s good looks with his adolescent attitude, and says he acted like a vain youth, putting kohl around his eyes, lifting his heels, and dressing his hair.  The most frequent reference of the wordna-ar in the Torah is to a young, unmarried man.  Perhaps Joseph feels he can get away with primping when he is with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, but he does not dare act that way when he is with Leah’s sons.  (I assume that Joseph is not tripping out over the sheep pastures all dolled up, wearing his long-sleeved tunic and high heels, but saves the show for when he goes into town with his four meeker half-brothers.)

The other clue to Joseph’s character is his reports to his father about his brothers’ slander (or gossip; the Hebrew word dibbah can also mean spreading rumors).  His reports are called  bad or wicked.  If Joseph is reporting to his father whenever his brothers speak slander or spread rumors about others, then he is a tattletale and is guilty of slander himself.

But what if Joseph is running to tell his father when his brothers slander him?  If he were six years old, like his full brother Benjamin, that behavior would be understandable and hardly wicked.  But it’s not so good when a 17-year-old says the equivalent of “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!”   One might expect Joseph to be mature enough to fight his own battles—especially if they are battles of words, since later in this week’s Torah portion he turns out to be unusually intelligent.

Jacob, the aged father of all these sons, appears oblivious to Joseph’s character.  He loves Joseph, and later Benjamin, more than all his other sons because they are the children of his beloved Rachel—and perhaps because they are the children not just of his old age, but of his dotage.  Jacob seems not to notice any traces of mascara around Joseph’s eyes, just as he seems not to notice that Joseph is either a tattletale and slanderer, or, at best, disturbingly immature.  Later in this Torah portion, Jacob suffers for his cluelessness.  He sends his favorite son some distance to check up on his brothers, and the brothers throw Joseph into a pit, sell him into slavery, then convince their father the boy was killed by wild beasts.

There are obvious lessons in this Torah portion for a parent, teacher, or boss.  When a parent shows favoritism toward one child, the other children respond with jealousy and even hatred.  When a parent spoils one child in relation to others, it encourages that child to behave badly.  These lessons have been passed down for millennia.  But does the opening of the Joseph saga offer any insight for us when we have to deal with a peer who is a slanderer and/or a self-absorbed brat?

What I see is that if you cannot speak to the “Joseph” in your life in peace, things can spiral out of control.  You will be tempted to do anything to get this person out of your life, and you may find yourself, like Joseph’s brothers, acting even worse than the person you hate.  The result for Joseph’s brothers is that they live under the pall of guilt the rest of their lives, and can never feel quite sure that Joseph has really forgiven them.

I think the beginning of Joseph’s story can also offer insight for someone who has exceptional mental abilities, but is socially inept and insecure.  It is an old Jewish maxim that a tzaddik (a “righteous” person who is unusually discerning about morality and deeply connected with God and Torah) is held to a higher standard than an ordinary person.  Joseph has different exceptional abilities; they turn out to be intellectual, prophetic, and charismatic.  But since he is deficient socially, he is hated and abused.

Similarly, if you are someone with exceptional abilities, you need to examine your impulses and behavior carefully, and strive to behave according to a higher standard.  Otherwise, you might find yourself at the bottom of a pit.

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  1. […] relationship with his father is suddenly resolved. (See my earlier posts, Vayeishev: Prey, and Vayeishev: A Difficult Youth.) Now Joseph is the one in charge, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to his now-dependent father. […]


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