Torah Portion “Parashat Vayeshav” (“and he dwelled”) Genesis 37 – 40
From this point on, the story of Jacob becomes the story of Joseph. Joseph is beloved but also hated. He is chosen but also boastful. He suffers wrongly but also succeeds wildly. He is going to change his family history and even human history.
Jacob loves Joseph more than he loves his other sons, and they have a hard time swallowing it. He becomes his dad’s “Tattle-tale” and informs Jacob of every bad thing the brothers do. In addition, Joseph has dreams that drive his brothers crazy. The brothers, full of hatred and envy, are not willing to listen and accept him. A chasm grows between them.
Jacob tries to mediate between Joseph and his brothers. He sends Joseph to make sure they are safe as they shepherd Jacob’s flocks through the hills and valleys of Canaan. Joseph sets out on a journey which turns out to be very long and full of hardships and unexpected twists and turns. The journey will separate Joseph and Jacob and the brothers for many years. And it will be a long time before Joseph can finish the mission to make sure his brothers are safe and then be rejoined with his father.
In the first stage of Joseph’s journey his brothers see him from a distance and plot to kill him. If only they had waited for him to come closer and give Jacob’s message; if only they would listen and hear what he had to say, perhaps tragedy would be avoided. However, they had already determined his fate from a distance, and as soon as Joseph reaches them, they throw him down into the pit.
Down and down… to paradoxical success
Notice the verb the Hebrew scriptures use from this moment on:
- “And, behold, a group of the Ishmaelites coming… with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh on their way to carry them down to Egypt” (Genesis 37:25)
- “…but he [Jacob] refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.’ ” (Genesis 37:35)
- “It came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brothers.” (Genesis 38:1)
- “And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt.” (Genesis 39:1)
From the moment Joseph is thrown down into the pit a sweeping decline of the whole family begins. His brothers sell him as a slave to the Ishmaelites who are on their way to sell their goods down in Egypt. Eventually Joseph’s whole family will end up going down to Egypt. They all seem to decline – the brothers, Jacob, Judah. Jealousy and hatred burn; and with these two feelings come harsh results. The brothers tell their father a lie about Joseph’s fate – that Joseph was preyed upon by a wild beast. This news pulls Jacob down to the abyss of depression.
Then Judah feels he can’t continue to live with his brothers. He understands that in order to get back up to a sane place, a place where he can look Jacob in the eyes again, he must disengage from his scheming brothers. He moves away.
The reason the family gets to these “downer” places – even all the way back to the days of Jacob and Esau – is: Denying and opposing the truth. A web of lies entangles them. The whole family needs transformation, needs to replace the low feelings with something better. And it is indeed coming… But what is important to note is that Joseph is the only one who does not go down in the story. Joseph is “brought down” by others who do the “bringing down.”
“And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt.” (Genesis 39:1)
He is thrown down into a pit then down into slavery, then down into prison. And wherever he is pushed down, he retains a greatness of spirit and incredibly, paradoxically – he experiences success in those places. Joseph does not grumble or complain. We hardly hear his voice during the whole difficult period he is going through. Joseph remains faithful to himself, faithful to his God and faithful to the truth. The truth protects him and gives him strength to keep going. The truth takes him out of the dark places and infuses him with light.
When we do not hold on to truth, when we deny it, we expose ourselves to destructive emotions. This brings us down to the lowest places. Even when circumstances get worse and worse, clinging to the truth keeps Joseph safe. Truth is a source of light in life – part of a recipe for miraculous results. The truth keeps us safe from ourselves.