Rachel’s D’var Torah: Parashat Vayeishev

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.

By Rachel LaVictoire

This week, we read Vayeishev, the famous story of Joseph—his dreams, his colorful coat, and his envious brothers. This story, like many others throughout the Torah, was first introduced to me in a fun and lighthearted manner: through the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat musical. To be honest, I’m not sure if I saw the real musical, or a video of the musical, but I remember walking away thinking I understood the story pretty well. 

At that young age, here’s what I gathered: Joseph got a really cool coat from his dad because he was his dad’s favorite. His brothers got jealous, which was wrong of them to do. Then they put him in a ditch, sold him to some passerby, and told their father that Joseph was dead. These were all examples of how the brothers misbehaved, which is why right before intermission, the chorus sang to Joseph the famously encouraging tune: 

go, go, go Joseph you know what they say

go, go, go Joseph you’ll make it someday

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sha-la-la Joseph you’re doing fine

you and your dreams are ahead of their time

Within a few years, more details were added to my knowledge of the story. For example, I hadn’t noticed before the way in which Joseph treated his brothers. In fact, he was quite rude to them, and arguably arrogant. If you go back to the text, the first dream he shared with his brothers was as such: “Listen now to this dream which I have dreamed: Behold we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled it and prostrated themselves to my sheaf” (Genesis 37:7). Then, in his second dream, it was the sun, moon, and stars were prostrating themselves to Joseph. 

Year after year, I grew increasingly knowledgeable about the story itself; and yet, year after year, I was surprised by yet another one of its elements. There was the year I learned that Joseph’s brothers originally wanted to kill him, but Rueben changed the plan to save his brother. Then in middle school, during the teachers’ reenactment of the story, I first picked up on the fact that Joseph had created a pleasant life in Egypt, until he was tricked by his master’s wife and put in jail. Last year, I remember, I deviated from Joseph’s story entirely and, focusing on the 4th aliyah of parshat Vayeishev, learned about the mitzvah of Yibbum. The point I mean to get across in all of this is that within this seemingly simple story of Joseph and his brothers, lay hundreds of tiny little meanings. 

This year, I decided to go directly to the Midrash Rabbah, the compilation of the teachings of Jewish sages. I’d read bits and pieces of it from Google searches and in-article quotes, but until now, I’d never just sat down and read these interpretations. Now, the parshah itself its about four chapters, which takes up about 7 pages of printer paper. The interpretations? About 40 pages. So I don’t plan on sharing everything, but here are a few interesting things I found (the text in small caps is from the parshah, and the rest is the interpretation): 

And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings

The wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are secure as a young lion (Proverbs XXXVIII, I): the wicked flees when none pursue—And [Esau] went into a land because of his brother Jacob (Genesis XXXVI, 6). … “but the righteous are secure as a young lion” applies to Jacob: and Jacob dwelt in the land

Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the song of his old age—zekunim

R. Judah said: It means that [Joseph’s] features (ziw ikunim) resembled [Jacob’s].

R. Nehemiah said: It mans that all the laws which Shem and Eber handed down to Jacob, he transmitted to [Joseph]

This next one I found most interesting. I remember, like Joseph’s brothers, thinking so highly of this colorful coat that Jacob gave to his favorite son. I remember thinking it was a wonderful gift. And yet, here is what our sages have to say on the matter: 

And he mad ehim a coat of many colors (passim).

Resh Lakish said in the name of R. Eleazar ben Azariah: A man must not make distinction among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our ancestor Jacob made for Joseph, They hated him.

The word passim indicates that it reached as far as his wrists (pas). It is called passim because they cast lots (hefissu) over it, as to who should carry it to their father, the lot falling to Judah. It was further called passim in allusion to his misfortunes, the [letter] peh standing for Potiphar, the [letter] samek for Soharim (traders), the [letter] yod for Yishmeelim (Ishmaelites), and [the letter] mem for Midyanim (Midianites). Again, passim denotes strips. R. Simeon ben Lakish quoted in the name of R. Eleazar ben Azariah: Come, and see the works of G-d: He is terrible in His doing toward the children of men. He turned the sea into dry land. Why was it that They hated him? because G-d divided the sea before them, passim indicating pas yam (the sea in strips). 

How could it be that such a beautiful gift could be clouded with such negativity? And how could it take so long to uncover these meanings from just four pages of text? The lessons here are many, but as usual, the questions I’m left with are countless. For a few years now, I’d been thinking about taking on the task of reading the Midrashim—bit by bit, I thought about making it a daily task. Now, I remember why I resisted. Opening a Midrash means questioning each and every line of the five books of the Torah. My already vague set of beliefs only gets further confused by the lines of Midrash. 

The evolution of my understanding of this one story speaks to the overall development of many individual’s understanding of religion: it’s something that starts simple—“I know nothing else, so yes, G-d created the earth, and G-d rules everything”—and grows increasingly more complicated—“But wait, did G-d create Adam and Eve… were they humans or were they monkeys that went through evolution to become humans… did G-d, who rules everything, just look the other way during the Holocaust?” 

Sure, there’s nothing morally controversial in this specific story. But even without the controversy, there’s certainly still something to be said for the difference between the “Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat” and the Passim that alludes to Joseph’s future misfortunes.