Joseph’s journey in becoming a wise, mature leader

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.  

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

This week we begin the story of Joseph, which will take up most of the remainder of the Book of Genesis. Our Torah Portion is Va’yeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23. Actually, we first met Joseph two weeks ago, when he was born. Then the Torah told us, “God remembered Rachel, listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my disgrace.’” So she named him Yosef/Joseph, which is to say, “The Eternal yosef/will add another son for me.”’ (Genesis 30:22-24; Va’yetze)

“Yosef” simply means “he will add,” but in his youth Joseph does anything but that. As we encounter him this week, he is a brash 17 year old, a spoiled brat, favored and indulged by his father. Joseph lords it over his brothers, almost taunting them by reporting his self-aggrandizing dreams, and tattling on them to their Dad. 

His siblings can’t stand him because of his boastfulness and bad behavior and because of their father’s favoritism for Joseph, “so that they couldn’t speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37:4) Even Jacob was disturbed by his son’s conduct and confronted Joseph about it (37:10-11). Our Rabbinic Sages also noted Joseph’s obnoxiousness: “he acted childishly, painting his eyes, prancing about, and curling his hair.” (Genesis Rabah 84:7)

Yet, as Joseph’s story develops, so too does his character. He is cast into a pit and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, falsely accused of attempted rape by his Egyptian master’s lascivious wife, and incarcerated in prison. Joseph’s uncanny ability to decipher dreams will figure prominently in his release from the dungeon and his elevation to second-in-command to the Pharaoh. Joseph will serve his royal superior loyally, fight world hunger effectively, marry and have a family, reconcile with his brothers, and be reunited with his aged father. He will take care of his extended family, secure their livelihood in Goshen, and honor his father’s last wishes. Eventually Joseph will live up to his name: he will add to his world and to the lives of those around him.

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The Mishnah records that Hillel ‘used to say, “ud’la mosif yasef/one who does not add, detracts…”’ (Pirkey Avot 1:13) 

After enduring and surviving the challenges and vicissitudes of his teen years and early adulthood, Joseph will mature and be deepened as a human being. Joseph will grow to become considerate of and kind to others, as well as sensitive to their needs. He will comprehend that God has worked through him when Joseph has acted to feed the famished and to save human life (Genesis 45:15-18). At long last, Joseph truly will be one who adds and does not detract.

Can the same be said of us? And if not now, when?