Joseph’s many colors

Parashat Ha-shavuah
Parashat Ha-shavuah

The story of Joseph and his brothers is the longest continuous narrative in our entire Torah; its telling takes four consecutive readings of the parashat ha-shavuah, the weekly Shabbat Torah portion – this year extending from November 23 through December 14. The story begins with the first verse of Genesis, chapter 37, and concludes with chapter 50, verse 26, the final words of our first Biblical book, which inform us that Joseph died at the age of 110, was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

“Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old and was shepherding the flock with his brothers….” (Genesis 37.1)

What a strange way to begin the story of Joseph and his brothers, as if Jacob, not Joseph, is at the center of the tale; yet in many ways it is Jacob who haunts and controls all twelve of the brothers.  The actions of the twelve are driven by their desire to satisfy their absent father – absent, even when physically present; for Jacob’s head and heart are consumed by his longing for his presumed dead favorite son, Joseph.

We meet Joseph for the first time as a tattletale, a spoiled brat who taunts his brothers by appearing before them in his coat of many colors, a clear token of his father’s undisguised favoritism.  Through his doting behavior, Jacob has reinforced his son’s adolescent narcissism; the teenager is so insensitive to his brothers’ feelings that he insists upon relating to them his dreams of grandeur and domination – dreams in which his entire family does obeisance to him, dreams in which he puts himself at the very center of the universe.

The seventeen-year-old Joseph lives in his self-absorbed world, a dream world in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars – symbols of his father, his dead mother Rachel, and his brothers – all bow down to him.

Many commentators see this Biblical tale as a precursor to the Bildungsroman, the coming of age story, in which the young immature Joseph builds himself up into a compassionate, competent, morally responsible adult, who ultimately saves his father, his brothers, along with their large families, from starving to death. Such interpreters see Joseph grow into a larger-than-life hero, who not only saves his family but also saves all Egypt from the ravages of famine through his intelligence, energy and foresight in preparing for “the seven lean years.”

Others, admittedly a decided minority, – among them Maurice Samuel (1895-1972) in his “Certain People of the Book” (1955) – argue that, contrary to centuries of rabbinical white-washing, Joseph remains a self-serving, emotionally shallow adult.  Samuel and others who follow his line of interpretation bring to bear considerable evidence to support this rather sour view of Joseph.  To begin with, the manner in which he torments – indeed, psychologically tortures – his brothers before finally revealing his identity can be seen as indicative of an unrepentant, vengeful personality; his leading his brothers to believe that he was about to enslave Benjamin – an act which would surely drive their father Jacob to madness or to death – was an act of especially savage cruelty.

Furthermore, the scene which unfolds in the splendor of Joseph’s Egyptian residence when he does at last identify himself to his brothers (beginning of chapter 45) can be viewed as a carefully managed ploy to place Joseph where he always likes to be: center stage, star of the show.  In this very same scene, in a subtle or not so subtle attempt to present himself as having a special relationship with God, Joseph tells his brothers: “So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45.8)

Lest these words be taken as Joseph’s one-time attempt to assuage his brothers’ guilt for their crime of selling him into slavery in Egypt, many years later he still feels the compulsion to allude to his “divine connection.” In a question which reeks of false modesty, he asks his brothers, “Am I a substitute for God?” (Genesis 50.19) Should I ever be delusional enough to put such a question to my own brother, I would no doubt hear his immediate retort: “What are you thinking? In a million years it would never occur to me that you are a substitute for God.”

I have read and reread the story of Joseph and his brothers with increasing delight and perplexity. It seems to me that the rabbis have been too easy on him, exaggerating his virtues and minimizing his flaws. On the other hand, Maurice Samuel is too hard on him, exaggerating his flaws and minimizing his virtues.  I myself see Joseph as a man of multiple dimensions, broken in some ways but nevertheless profoundly gifted – a man whose character unfolds in many colors, like that coat long ago presented to him by his doting father Jacob.

James B. Rosenberg ( is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.