Vayechi: When Jacob Bows

The prophecy

Joseph has two prophetic dreams when is seventeen, according to the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). After the second dream, he tells his brothers:

“Hey, I dreamed a dream again! And hey! The sun and the moon and eleven stars mishtachavim to me!” And he reported [it] to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, lehishtachot to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:9-11)

mishtachavim (מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = were bowing down, were prostrating themselves. (From the root verb shchh, שׁחה = bow down deeply in humility, do homage.)

lehishtachot (לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת) = to bow down. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

Joseph’s father, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel), is over 100 years old at this time, and so far the Torah has not mentioned him bowing down to anyone except his brother, Esau.

The previous prostration

That happened in the Torah portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), when the two brothers met again after a twenty-year estrangement. Esau had vowed to kill his brother after Jacob had cheated him out of both his birthright and the blessing he expected from their father. Jacob had fled to his uncle’s house in Charan. When he finally headed home again, after acquiring a large family and his own fortune, he learned that Esau was coming down the road with 400 men to intercept him. Jacob did everything he could think of to prevent disaster: sending his brother generous gifts ahead of time, praying to God, and finally, as Esau came into view with his troop,

He himself went across to face him, vayishtachu to the ground seven times, until he came up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)

vayishtachu (וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed down, and he prostrated himself. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

In the Hebrew Bible, prostrations are a way to demonstrate humility and deference to a superior—usually to a king or to God. By bowing down to Esau seven times, Jacob is symbolically renouncing any advantage he tried to get over Esau in his youth, and demonstrating as graphically as possible that he considers Esau his superior. His prostrations are the equivalent of a puppy rolling over and exposing its throat to an older dog.

Inferior to nobody

After Jacob and his family and servants depart from Esau in peace, he does not bow to anyone for over forty years. Why should he? Jacob, jealous of his twin brother’s extra rights as the firstborn, has always been self-conscious about his position in life. After he failed to secure the rights of a firstborn son by fraud, he labored in Charan for twenty years until he had earned them. Now Jacob is a chieftain with twelve sons, many slaves and employees, and a great  wealth of livestock. The chieftain of the town of Shekhem treats Jacob as an equal, and when he makes an offer to Jacob he goes out to his camp instead of summoning him to his own residence in town.1

Jacob does not bow down to God, either. He first encounters God in the dream with angels on a stairway, and when he wakes up he treats God as someone to bargain with, vowing to give God a tithe of his wealth if God protects him and brings him safely back home.2 When Jacob worships God, he does so by pouring oil on a stone or burning animal offerings on an altar.3

Jacob and his people settle somewhere near Hebron/Chevron in Canaan.4 After Jacob’s older sons come home from the field without their younger brother and show their father Joseph’s bloody tunic, Jacob thinks his favorite son is dead. He mourns Joseph for 22 years. During that time Joseph is actually living in Egypt, where he rises from slave to viceroy. Finally Joseph sends for his father and his whole extended family in last week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 4:18-47:27).

And Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet Israel [a.k.a. Jacob], his father. And he appeared to him, and he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck a long time. Then Israel said to Joseph: “I can die now, after seeing your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

But the prophetic dream Joseph had when he was seventeen is not fulfilled. Jacob’s brothers have already bowed down to him many times, but his father has not.

Jacob does not bow down to Pharaoh, either, when Joseph presents him at court. He greets the king of Egypt with a blessing, and answers Pharaoh’s inquiry about how old he is by saying he is 130, and his life has been hard and short.5 Then Jacob blesses the king again, and leaves.

The prophecy fulfilled

Jacob finally bows down for the second time of his life on his deathbed, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).

Then the time approached for Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] to die, and he called for his son, for Joseph, and said to him: “If, na, I find favor in your eyes, place, na, your hand under my thigh and do a loyal and faithful deed for me: don’t, na, bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my forefathers, then bring me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place!” (Genesis 47:29-30)

na (נָא) = please, pray, I beg you. 

Joseph gives his word, but Jacob wants the formal hand gesture of an oath as well.6

And he [Israel/Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. Vayishtachu, Israel, upon head of the bed. (Genesis 47:31)

vayishtachu (וַיֱִשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Many classic commentators wrote that Jacob bowed toward the head of his bed, because the presence of God is at the head of the bed of a sick person (and prepositions are ambiguous). But that interpretation implies he was standing up. The Torah has already told us that Jacob is 147, and his death is approaching. I have been at the beside of four people near death, and I believe even Jacob would be too feeble to stand up during his final days.7 Perhaps he is seated on his bed, resting against a cushion, and he manages to bow at the waist.

In that case, he is not bowing toward the head of his bed; he is probably bowing to Joseph. This was the opinion of 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam, who wrote: “ ‘And Israel bowed low’: To Joseph, from the place where he was at [the top of] the bed.”8

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340 C.E.), known as Rabbeinu Bachya, added: “Seeing that Joseph had agreed to honour his father by undertaking to fulfill his wishes, Yaakov in turn prostrated himself before him to show that he respected the position Joseph occupied as effective ruler of the country.”8

Jacob spent the first hundred years of his life struggling to be the one on top, the one in charge. But during his final years in Egypt, he accepts that his son Joseph is his superior. He knows he is dependent on Joseph to carry out his final request, so he uses the language of an inferior, using the subservient phrase “if I find favor in your eyes” and repeating he word na. Then he uses the gesture of a humble inferior, coming as close as he can to a prostration.

This is the moment when Jacob fulfills the prophecy of the dream his son Joseph had when he was seventeen.

Jacob on his Deathbed, woodcut, 1539

After that, Jacob lives long enough to do the equivalent of rewriting his will, adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own so they will receive shares of the inheritance equal to those of Joseph’s brothers. Jacob also delivers his own prophecies to all his sons, predicting what will happen to the tribes that descend from them. Finally he orders all twelve of his sons to bury him with his deceased family members in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan.

And Jacob completed commanding his sons, and he drew back his feet in the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)

One prostration to Joseph before he died was enough for Jacob.

“Honor your father and your mother,” says the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. In my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, I suggest that parents should also honor their children. But should they show humble submission to them, as Jacob did by bowing to Joseph on his deathbed?

Nobody would advise submission to a callow seventeen-year-old. But what about when the child is middle-aged, and the parent’s ability to deal with the world is declining in old age? If the adult child is competent and kind, then it would be better to humbly submit to that child’s arrangements than to insist on complete autonomy. I hope that is what I will do when I am considerably older—though I do not expect to live to age 147!

  1. Genesis 34:6-24.
  2. Genesis 28:20-22.
  3. Jacob’s journey south from Shekhem ends at the home of his father, Isaac, in Hebron/Chevron (Genesis 35:27). After that, the Torah only says Jacob lives “in the land of Canaan”, without specifying the location. His first stop on the way to Egypt is Beir-sheva, which is south of Chevron.
  4. Genesis 28:16-19, 33:19-20, 35:6, 35:13-14, 46:1.
  5. Genesis 47:7-10.
  6. Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses the word for “thigh”, yareich (יָרֵךְ) as a euphemism for the genitals. According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, midrash written between 630 and 1030 C.E., Jacob said: “O my son! Swear to me by the covenant of circumcision that thou wilt take me up to the burial-place of my fathers in the land of Canaan to the Cave of Machpelah.” (translation of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 39:13 by
  7. This is the first of Jacob’s three deathbed scenes. In the second, he has to summon his strength (vayitchaek, וַיִּתחַזֵּק) to sit up in bed.
  8. Both quotations are from

Vayeishev & Vayigash: Is Joseph Ethical?

It is one thing to take an ethical stand when only you and a few other individuals are concerned. It can be harder to perceive and make the most ethical choice when a whole population is affected.

Joseph as ethical examplar

I have written before about Joseph’s iffy behavior as a troubled seventeen-year old and his older brothers’ inflated response: selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 I have also written about how twenty years later Joseph saves his brothers’ lives and declines to take revenge, though he could easily enslave them; he merely puts them through a nerve-wracking test.2

Joseph acts even more ethically when he is propositioned by the wife of his Egyptian owner, Potifar. God blesses Joseph with success in everything he does, and Potifar promotes him to steward over his household in the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). Potifar’s wife notices how good-looking Joseph is, and asks him to lie down with her.3

And he refused, and he said to his master’s wife: “Hey, with me, my master is not concerned about what is in the house, because everything that is his, he placed in my hand. There are none greater in this house than I am, and he has not withheld anything at all from me except you, since you are his wife. So how could I do this great wickedness, and be guilty before God?” (Genesis/Bereishit 39:8-9)

Joseph Flees Potiphar’s Wife,
by Julius Schnorr von Carlsfeld, 19th century

Joseph feels intuitively that committing adultery with his owner’s wife would be wicked. Potifar did not enslave him, but merely purchased him as a slave. Since then his owner has treated him well and trusted him completely. Joseph believes it would be wrong to cheat him.

He also believes that adultery is wrong according to God. Although the God of Israel does not explicitly prohibit adultery until the Ten Commandments,4 God has already punished two kings who unknowingly attempted adultery with Joseph’s great-grandmother Sarah. Furthermore, adultery is a general taboo in the region; both kings were appalled when they discovered what they had almost done.5

So when Potifar’s wife approaches him again, Joseph flees.

Several years later, Pharaoh has two significant dreams, and Joseph is called upon to interpret them. He tells Pharaoh that the dreams are God’s warning that Egypt will have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he advises Pharaoh to appoint someone make sure grain is stockpiled during the years of plenty. Pharaoh appoints Joseph viceroy in charge of all agriculture in Egypt.6

He spends the next seven years commandeering and storing Egypt’s excess grain. The Torah does not say how Joseph acquires the grain; it may be through eminent domain, for the public good. Or he may purchase the grain, as the United States purchases crude oil to stock its Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Either way, Joseph is earning his livelihood as Pharaoh’s agent in an ethical way.

We learn what Joseph does during the seven years of famine in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27).

Joseph, Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries,
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

Joseph as capitalist

During the first year of famine, Joseph sells grain from the government’s reserves for silver, the currency of that time and place, and brings the silver into Pharaoh’s palace. The second year of famine, there is no more silver left in either Egypt or Canaan.

Then all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Give us bread! Why should we die in front of you? For the silver is all gone.” (Genesis 47:15)

Rather than distributing grain for free, Joseph offers to trade grain for livestock. So that year Pharaoh acquires ownership of all the horses, donkeys, cows, and sheep in Egypt.

In the third year of famine, the Egyptians tell Joseph:

“We cannot hide from my lord that all the silver and the cattle [we] possessed have gone to my lord. Nothing remains before my lord except our bodies and our soil. Why should we die before your eyes, us and our soil? Keneih us and our soil for bread, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh. And give us seed, so we will live and not die, and the soil will not turn into desert.” (Genesis 47:18-29)

keneih (קְנֵה) = Acquire! Buy! (An imperative form of kana, קָנָה = acquired through purchase, ransom, or production.)

By the third year of the famine, the Egyptians are in the position of debt slaves who must sell both their land and themselves just so they can eat. Their poverty is entirely due to the weather, which is an act of God.

How does Joseph respond? First he acquires all the farmland in Egypt for Pharaoh—all except for the land Pharaoh had previously allotted to the priests,7 and the land of Goshen where Pharaoh invited Joseph’s extended family to settle.8

Vayiken, Joseph, all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh, since all the Egyptian sold their fields because the famine was too strong for them. And the land became Pharaoh’s. (Genesis 47:20)

vayiken (וַיִּקֶן) = and he acquired. (Another form of kana.)

Since Pharaoh has a monopoly on all the grain remaining in the region, Joseph can sell the grain at any price he likes. If laissez-faire capitalism is ethical, then Joseph’s acquisition of all the farmland is ethical.

Next, in order to make sure that the Egyptian farmers know they no longer own the land they farm, Joseph moves whole communities to different areas. People have the same neighbors as before, but they live in a different place, and farm different plots than their parents and grandparents.

Is this ethical? It could be worse; at least Joseph deports existing communities together, so people have the same friends, neighbors, and social structure in their new location. But they do not have a choice about where to live. In that respect, they have indeed become slaves rather than citizens.

The Hebrew Bible accepts slavery as a necessary evil, but decrees that Israelites may only sell themselves as debt slaves for a term of six years. In the seventh year they must be freed, unless they choose to undergo a ritual committing them to their owner for life. And when owners free their slaves, they must supply them with goods that will give them a start in their new life.9

So if Joseph were ethical by later Israelite standards, he would buy the Egyptians as temporary slaves, and set them free after a reasonable number of years.

If he were ethical by modern standards, he would acquire their land, but not their bodies. No doubt they would choose to work for the government as tenant farmers for a while, since it was the only way they could get food. But when times improved, they would be free to choose another form of livelihood.

After Joseph acquires the farmland for Pharaoh and deports whole communities, he takes one more step.

Then Joseph said to the people: “Hey, kaniti you and your soil today for Pharaoh. See, there is seed for you, and you shall sow the soil. And when you harvest, you will give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths will be yours to sow the field and to eat, you and everyone in your households and your little ones.” (Genesis 47:24)

kaniti (קָנִיתִי) = I have acquired. (Another form of kana.)

Thus Joseph institutes a system of serfdom, turning the people into permanent tenant farmers. Every year the farmers must give Pharaoh 20% of their harvest. It is not a tax on their income, but rather a split of the profits between the owner of the land and the workers who do the labor.

The farmers gratefully accept this arrangement simply in order to eat. They would rather be alive with no freedom and no belongings, than dead of starvation.

And they said: “He has kept us alive! We found mercy in the eyes of my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:25)

Mandating a tenant farmer arrangement in perpetuity certainly benefits Pharaoh and his government, which will now receive a steady annual income of grain. Joseph is a successful administrator. But is his arrangement ethical?

Some classic commentators praised Joseph for his moderation. Since Egyptian farmers got to keep four-fifths of their harvest, they did not suffer hardship, according to Radak (13th-century rabbi David Kimchi) and 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno. Sforno also noted that all slave-owners were responsible for feeding their slaves, so in the event of another famine Pharaoh would have to provide his tenant farmers with food.

However, the bottom line is that few human beings want to be someone else’s property. We want to make our own decisions about where we live and how we earn a livelihood. Joseph did less harm to the farmers of Egypt than he might have, but his actions were still unethical.

Is he motivated by a desire for revenge due to his own enslavement? Joseph threatens his brothers with slavery, but does not impose it. He knows them, and he overhears them admit to each other that they were guilty of enslaving him.10 He feels empathy for them, and turns away to weep.

He also feels warmhearted toward Potifar, who promoted him and trusted him. But he does not have any feelings about the farmers of Egypt.

I believe Joseph’s ethics are imperfect because he is human. It is hard to imagine the viewpoint of thousands of people you have never met. Yet someone with power in government must do just that in order to make ethical decisions. Saving lives is good, but it is not the only good.

  1. See my post Vayeishev: Favoritism.
  2. See my posts Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. Genesis 39:6-7.
  4. Exodus 20:13.
  5. Genesis 15:11-20, 20:1-7 and 47:27.
  6. Genesis 41:1-46.
  7. Genesis 47:22.
  8. Genesis 47:1-6, 47:11-12.
  9. Exodus 21:2-6, Deuteronomy 15:12-18.
  10. Genesis 42:21-24.

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Blame

When something bad happens that is neither an accident nor an act of God, who gets the blame?

Blame a beast

Joseph’s ten older brothers cannot stand him anymore in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40-23). Their father, Jacob, dotes on him, and he lords it over his brothers. When they are out with the flocks Joseph spies on them, and brings back bad reports to Jacob.

Jacob Weeps over Joseph’s Tunic,
by Marc Chagall

Once the brothers say they are taking the flocks to Shekhem, but they make an additional day’s journey to Dotan. There they look back down the road, and see their seventeen-year-old brother. Is there no escape?

Several of the older brothers decide to kill him then and there, throw his body into a pit, and tell Jacob a wild beast ate him. But Reuben tells them to throw him in alive, so his blood will not be on their hands. When Joseph prances up tot them, they grab him, strip off his fancy clothing, and heave him into the nearest dry cistern. Then while they are eating lunch, they see a caravan heading for Egypt, and Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the traders as a slave. That way they get rid of him and make some money, too. Before they go home, the brothers dip Joseph’s fancy clothing in goat’s blood. The ploy works; when they show the bloody garment to Jacob, he believes Joseph was killed by a wild animal. So far, they have escaped the blame.

Blame the victim

Meanwhile a high-ranking Egyptian named Potifar buys Joseph. Potifar notices that everything his new slave undertakes succeeds, so he advances Joseph to the position of steward of his household. Then Potifar’s wife tries to seduce the handsome young slave, but he refuses her on ethical grounds. When she grabs at his clothing he runs away, leaving his garment in her hand.1

When Potifar comes home, his wife shows him Joseph’s garment and says:

“He came to me, the Hebrew slave that you brought to us, to fool around with me! But it was like I cried out at the top of my voice, and he left his garment beside me and he fled outside.” (Genesis 39:17-18)

Blaming the victim works; Potifar sends Joseph to prison.

Blaming the guilty for a different crime

Joseph’s run of success continues in prison, and thanks to God he correctly interprets the dreams of two men in custody awaiting their sentences. One is executed and the other is exonerated, exactly as Joseph predicted. Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Pharaoh has two troubling dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. The exonerated man remembers Joseph, and he is brought up from prison.

Joseph tells Pharaoh that both of his dreams mean the same thing: seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Then he gives Pharaoh some advice about stockpiling grain during the years of plenty. Pharaoh is so impressed with the young man that he elevates Joseph to his second-in-command. Joseph becomes a successful minister of agriculture.

After seven years, the famine comes not only to Egypt but to the whole known world. Jacob sends his ten older sons from Canaan down to Egypt to buy grain.

And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger to them and he spoke to them harshly … (Genesis 42:7)

They do not recognize Joseph, who was seventeen when they sold him. Now he is thirty-seven, he has an Egyptian name, he shaves and dresses like an Egyptian, and he speaks through an interpreter.2 Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. They blurt out the first reason that comes into their heads why they are innocent of this charge.

Joseph’s Brothers Bow to the Governor, by Owen Jones, 1865

And they said: “Your servants are twelve brothers! We are sons of one man in the land of Canaan. But hey, the youngest is with his father now, and the one is not.” (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph uses this scant information as a means to get the youngest of the twelve brothers down to Egypt—Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother as well as the only innocent one. He puts his ten older brothers in the guardhouse for three days, then announces that one of them must stay behind under guard while the rest go home with the grain.

“But the youngest brother you must bring to me, so your words will be verified and you will not die.”And they said, one to another: “Ah! We are asheimim on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he was pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come to us.”  (Genesis 42:20-21)

asheimim (אֲשֵׁמִים) = bearing the consequences of guilt. (A form of the verb asham, אָשָׁם = became guilty.)

The brothers finally blame themselves for doing something wrong. And they consider their punishment under a false charge their just deserts—although Reuben then tries to exonerate himself by saying:

“Didn’t I say to you: Don’t techetu about the boy? But you did not pay attention. And now here is the reckoning for his blood!” (Genesis 42:22)

techetu (תֶּחֶטְאוּ) = you be blameworthy, be at fault. (A form of the verb chata, חָטַא = was blameworthy, was at fault, missed the mark.)

Blame others for your own misery

Joseph keeps Simeon under guard while the others take grain home to their extended family. When they tell their father what happened, he complains:

“I am the one you bereave of children! Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and [now] you would take Benjamin! Everything happens to me!” (Genesis 42:36)

Now that Joseph is gone, Benjamin is the only remaining child of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob flatly refuses to let Benjamin go.

The famine continues. When Jacob’s family in Canaan has eaten all the Egyptian grain, he tells his sons to go back to Egypt for more. Judah points out that the Egyptian minister said they could not see him again unless they brought their youngest brother with them.

And Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] said: “Why did you treat me badly, telling the man you had another brother?” (Genesis 43:6)

Again, Jacob thinks only about himself, and blames his ten older sons for his own misery. They are, in fact, guilty of taking Joseph away from him, but they sold Joseph to relieve their own misery, not to afflict their father. But a narcissist does not think other people have their own independent motives.

Take the blame in advance

Then Judah steps up and promises to take responsibility for Benjamin. First he points out that if Benjamin does not go down to Egypt, he will die of starvation, along with the rest of the family.

Then Judah said to Israel, his father: “Send the young man with me, and we will go, and we will live and not die: me, you, and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge; from my hand you can seek him. If I do not bring him back to you and place him before you, then chatati for all time.” (Genesis 43:8-9)

chatiti (חָטָאתִי) = I am blameworthy, I have missed the mark. (Another form of the verb chata.)

Judah makes no extravagant promises, but he does accept blame ahead of time if anything goes wrong. That is enough. Jacob lets Benjamin go with his brothers to Egypt.

Accepting the blame when you are guilty is an ethical response. Yet humans instinctively shrink from being blamed. We do not want to look bad, and we do not want to be punished. On the other hand, humans find it all too easy to blame others without knowing the whole story.

Joseph’s ten older brothers are all responsible, in one way or another, for his disappearance from Canaan. But they deceive their father so that his blame will fall on a wild beast rather than on any of them. Jacob fails to investigate at the time, and years later he blames them for his misery over the loss of Joseph even though he has no evidence against them. He is not an ethical blamer.

Potifar’s wife takes pre-emptive action by delivering a false accusation before Joseph can tell Potifar what actually happened. Blaming the victim is still a common strategy of the guilty.

Joseph does not even try to defend himself against the woman’s accusation. But he makes a false accusation himself when his brothers come to him to buy grain. His accusation lets him manipulate circumstances so that his brothers finally blame themselves for their old crime, and so that in the long run he can transplant his whole family to Egypt, alive and well. The only punishment he afflicts on his guilty brothers is their anxiety about what he will do to them.

Judah turns out to be the best at handling blame. Although as a young man he is guilty of talking his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave, he changes over the years—most notably when he sentences his daughter-in-law to death for an illegal pregnancy, then learns the rest of the story. He publicly admits he was wrong and stops the execution.3

By the second year of famine, Judah is able to accept blame ahead of time for whatever happens to Benjamin, knowing that it is the only way he can get food for the whole family. And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Judah fulfills his pledge by volunteering to become a slave in order to save Benjamin from that fate.

Some of the characters in Genesis never change. But others learn how to accept blame when they deserve it. May more of us today learn how to overcome our natural tendencies to slap blame on others and dodge it ourselves. If Joseph and Judah can change, so can we.

  1. See my post Vayeishev: Stripped Naked.
  2. Genesis 41:14, 42:23.
  3. See my post Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.

Vayeishev: Favoritism

This week I am having a good time rewriting a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of the snake in the Garden of Eden. I also made some Thanksgiving dishes, and looked over this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, the beginning of the story about Joseph and his brothers. This essay on Vayeishev comes from the first draft of my book on Genesis.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones, 1865

The Favorite

Joseph’s ten older brothers are guilty of throwing him into an empty cistern with the intention to kill him, then selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their behavior is clearly immoral.

What is less blatant is the unethical behavior of Joseph and his father, Jacob.

Joseph’s unethical behavior

These are the histories of Jacob: Joseph, at age 17, was tending the flock with his brothers, and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s women. And Joseph brought dibatam to their father. And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a fancy tunic. (Genesis 37:1-3)

na-ar (נַעַר) = boy, young single man, assistant, servant.

dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = slander about them, slander of theirs, their bad reputation.  (dibat, דִּבַּת = slander of, bad reputation of + suffix -am, ָם = third person masculine plural.)

Joseph is “a son of his old age”,1 but that is not the only reason Jacob (also called Israel) loves him the most.  Joseph is Rachel’s older son, and the Torah says Jacob loves Rachel more than his other three women, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah.  When he meets Esau at the Yabok River, Jacob places Rachel and Joseph last, the farthest from harm.  After Rachel dies, Joseph is the person he loves most in the world.

In what way is Joseph a na-ar? At age 17, his role might be to assist some of his adult brothers in the family business.  Joseph is a na-ar with the four sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Perhaps Jacob divided his sons into two groups in charge of different flocks because Leah’s older sons destroyed Shekhem, and he does not trust them to be a good influence on Joseph, his favorite. (Probably Leah’s last three children, who are about the same age as Joseph, are assisting her four adult sons.)

Or perhaps Joseph chose to go out with the sons of the concubines because they are conscious of the inferior status of their mothers, and therefore defer to him.2

Besides being an assistant, Joseph acts like a juvenile (another meaning of na-ar) when he brings dibatam to Jacob.  He might be slandering his brothers.  Or he might be reporting that his brothers are slandering him.  If he were a young child there would be nothing wrong with running to his father and saying the equivalent of “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!” But at age 17, Joseph should be mature enough to fight his own battles, especially if they are battles of words; later in the story he turns out to be exceptionally intelligent.

The word dibatam refers to any words that harm another person’s reputation, whether they are the truth or slander.  Whether Joseph is lying about his brothers or merely reporting all of their actual bad deeds, he is lowering their reputations. There is no indication in the Torah that he does this to achieve any higher good.

Then he antagonizes his brothers even more by telling them one of his dreams.

Joseph’s Dream of Sheaves, by Owen Jones, 1865

And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and it added to their hatred of him even more. (Genesis 37:5)

In this first dream, the brothers are binding sheaves, and all of their sheaves bow down to his sheaf. The brothers conclude that their younger brother wants to rule over them like a king.

Joseph’s behavior is ethically unsavory. He harms four of his brothers by making them look bad, and all ten of his older brothers by flaunting his dream of dominance, which makes them feel inferior.

Joseph’s weaknesses

What subverts Joseph’s ability to make better moral choices?

He knows, at least subconsciously, that he has done nothing to earn the status of Jacob’s favorite son; his father dotes on him merely because Rachel was his mother. Since Rachel’s death, Jacob has probably become even more attached to her older son.

Joseph cannot prove that he deserves his father’s esteem, but at least he can prove that the four sons of Jacob’s concubines deserve less esteem than he does by bringing his father bad reports, true or false.

Why does Joseph tell his brothers his dream? Is he too egocentric to realize that it will upset them? Or does he want to upset them, at least subconsciously?

Nobody sees Joseph as an individual; he is only Jacob’s favorite son. Since his mother’s death he has needed attention as a human being, not as a symbol.  Even negative attention is better than none. So he makes another poor moral choice, telling his brothers that according to the predictive world of dreams, they are going to be subservient to him.

Jacob’s unethical behavior

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones, 1865

Their father, Jacob, foolishly shows his favoritism when he gives Joseph a fancy tunic. Like Cain, who reacts to God’s unfair favoritism by attacking his brother Abel rather than God, Joseph’s older brothers react to their father’s unfair favoritism by attacking their brother rather than Jacob.

At first their attacks are only verbal: they never speak a peaceful word to him.3  Then Joseph tells them two of his dreams.

In Joseph’s second dream the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him.

And he told it to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him, and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter. (Genesis 37:10-11)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

Jacob interprets the sun and moon as representing himself and Rachel (deceased), and the eleven stars as Joseph’s eleven brothers (including little Benjamin, Rachel’s youngest). It is not clear whether Jacob rebukes his favorite son for the content of the dream, or for telling it to his family. He observes that the dream makes Joseph’s brothers jealous, but he does not seem to be aware that he contributed to their jealousy by giving only Joseph an upper-class tunic.

Then Jacob’s ten older sons take the family’s flocks to Shekhem. Jacob gives Joseph instructions that might be straightforward—or might imply he does not trust his other sons, and he wants Joseph to continue acting as a tattletale.

And he said to him: “Go, please, see about the well-being of your brothers    and the well-being of the flock, and return word to me.” (Genesis 37:14)

Jacob knows that his older sons resent Joseph, but it does not occur to him that they hate Joseph so much they would consider murdering him.

Jacob’s weaknesses

Why does Jacob listen to Joseph’s bad reports about his brothers?

Subconsciously he may realize that his partiality for Joseph is based only on his love for the boy’s mother. (The Torah does not mention Joseph’s good looks or intelligence at this point.) If Jacob knew that Joseph actually was superior to his brothers, he would have less reason to feel guilty for his preferential treatment. So when Joseph gives him bad reports about at least four of his brothers, Jacob is happy to believe him.

Why does he send Joseph on a journey of several days4 to check up on his older brothers?

Perhaps he is merely worried that his older sons are up to no good. Or perhaps Joseph’s second dream has alerted his father that his favorite son is either narcissistic or dangerously naive. Traveling alone to Shekhem might teach Joseph more independence and give him time to reflect. He might even encounter God, as Jacob did when he traveled alone to Charan.

Those are charitable explanations. But it is also possible that Jacob is simply in the habit of soliciting more evidence that his bias toward Joseph is justified. The collusion between the father and his favorite son would make them seem closer, and that would reinforce Jacob’s bad  habit of asking Joseph to inform on his brothers.

Jacob is too narcissistic to realize that his own behavior is lowering Joseph’s moral standards. When he dispatches Joseph to Shekhem to check up on his brothers, he is too narcissistic to realize that he is jeopardizing his favorite son’s life.

When Joseph finally catches up with his brothers,

Joseph Sold into Slavery, by Owen Jones,1865

They said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of these pits, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”  (Genesis 37:19-20)

They do not murder Joseph, but they do sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.

Small unethical deeds can have big consequences.

  1. Commentators disagree on Jacob’s age when his son Joseph is born. When Jacob leaves for Charan we know he is over 40 (Genesis 26:34); Nachmanides (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Ramban) wrote that he is 84.  (Like some other fabulously aged heroes of Genesis, Jacob has no problem with sex and physical labor after 80.)  Joseph is born 14 years after Jacob arrives in Charan (Genesis 29:14, 19-20, 27, 30; Genesis 30:25).  Although Leah’s youngest sons, Issachar and Zebulun, are born in the same year or two as Joseph, only Joseph is called the “son of his old age”.  Nachmanides explained that when Jacob was well over 100, he must have picked Joseph to be the son who took care of his physical needs in old age.
  2. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, p. 706.
  3. Genesis 37:4.
  4. Jacob believes his ten oldest sons are pasturing the flocks in Shekhem, which is about 50 miles (80 km) from his home in Hebron. When Joseph arrives at Shekhem he learns that his brothers have gone on to Dotan, so his journey is even longer.

Lamentations, Va-etchannan, & Vayeishev: The Pit

Dig a deep hole in the ground and you have a pit, a bor in Hebrew.  In the bible you can use it as a dungeon, or line it with cement and use it as a cistern to store water. A bor is also part of the underworld where the souls of the dead go.

Roman Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple—both the first temple, razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second temple, razed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  On Tisha B’Av it is customary to read the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, a series of five poems which mourn the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army.

The first poem opens with the word Eykhah (“How can it be?”)1 and expresses the desolation of the ruins of Jerusalem.  The second poem, which also begins Eykhah, calls the destruction “the day of God’s wrath” over the misdeeds of Jerusalem’s people.  The fourth and fifth poems combine the two themes, with emphasis on starvation and being at the mercy of the enemy.

The third poem, however, reads like one of the personal psalms in which the ancient poets feel as if they are near death, and plead with God to bring them back to life and take vengeance against their enemies.2  Only in verse 40 does the third poem of Lamentations switch from “I” to “we”, urging all the people of Jerusalem to plead with God for forgiveness and rescue.

     Let us check on our ways and cross-examine [ourselves], and turn back to God!  (Lamentations 3:40)3

The first person singular returns with:

     Streams of water go down from my eyes over the shattering of my people.  (Lamentations 3:48)

Shortly after that, the narrator, identifying with Jerusalem, claims that the Babylonians did not actually need the city.

     My enemies actually hunted me like a bird, for no reason.

     They silenced my life in the bor, and in their hand was a stone against me.

     The waters rose over my head.  I thought: “I am ended!”

     I called your name, God, from the bottom of the bor.

     May you hear my voice!  Do not shut your ear to my spirit, to my cry for help!  (Lamentations/Eykhah 3:52-56)

bor (בּוֹר) = a pit; a cistern, a dungeon, a synonym for Sheol.

Here the bor is not a physical cistern or dungeon, but a poetic image for Sheol, the underworld of the souls of the dead.  Bor is used at least 21 times in the Hebrew Bible to indicate either Sheol or the lowest region of Sheol, but this is the only such reference that includes water.  Souls never drown after they are dead in ancient Hebrew mythology.  Thus the narrator of this poem is not dead, but despairing of life.  The poet uses the images of both stone and water, comparing the bor of Sheol to a cistern filling up with water.

The narrator, like all the citizens of defeated Jerusalem, is trapped—unable to float to the surface and escape.

A full cistern

Next week Jews read from Va-etchanan (“And I implored”), the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  In this portion cisterns are listed as assets that the Israelites will enjoy once they conquer the land of Canaan:

… cities big and good that you did not build, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, excavated borot that you did not excavate, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  [Then] take heed, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

borot (בֺּרוֹת) = plural of bor.

How lovely to move into a land already dotted with cisterns that collect and store water for the dry season!  Moses reminds his people not to take the cisterns for granted, since they did not excavate them.  Canaanites dug them, and the Israelites will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.4

The books of Exodus through Joshua treat the conquest of Canaan as an unmitigated good, since it results in fertile land for the Israelites, not to mention pre-existing amenities such as cities, houses, and cisterns.  The bible does not consider the Canaanite point of view.

But I can imagine poets from the various conquered peoples of Canaan writing laments after the Israelites besiege and loot their cities, destroy their temples, and kill many of their people.  The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua is the same story as the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar; only the names and dates change.

An empty cistern

Cisterns holding water are mentioned twelve times in the Hebrew Bible.  Dry cisterns and dry pits are mentioned at least 31 times.  They serve as hiding places,5 a warrior throws bodies of the slain into them,6 and large animals fall in.7  Psalm 7:16 refers to a man falling into a pit he dug himself, a fine image of being caught in your own trap.8

Since the walls of an empty cistern are covered with cement, they do not provide handholds for a human to climb out.  The only escape is for someone at the top to throw you a rope.

At least thirteen times the bible mentions a dry bor, it was  excavated to serve as a dungeon.  Five times in Genesis, in the portion Vayeishev (“And he settled”), the bor is an empty cistern that Joseph’s older brothers use as an ad-hoc prison.

They see Joseph coming up the road to check on them, and they know he will give a negative report to their father, as usual.

Joseph pulled up from the pit, by James J.J. Tissot

And they said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of the borot, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”    And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this bor that is in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and return him to his father.  And it happened when Joseph came up to his brothers.  They stripped his tunic off Joseph, the fancy tunic that he had on, and they took him and threw him into the bor.  And there was no water; the bor was empty. (Genesis 37:20-24)

It would take about two weeks for a healthy adolescent like Joseph to die of dehydration at the bottom of the pit, less if there were no shade.  Before Reuben can return with a rope to rescue him, Judah sells Joseph to a caravan.  The traders pull him up out of the bor and take him to Egypt as a slave.


A deep hole in the ground is beneficial when it becomes a cistern full of water, or the basement of a building.9  But when it is used as a dungeon, the captive will die unless given food and water.  A prisoner in a dungeon can hope for a reprieve or a rescue, but if the bor is Sheol you can only be saved if God heeds your prayer as you go down.  There is no life after death in that bor; at best the disembodied souls lie in eternal sleep.10

Today, when we are depressed we feel “down”, trapped in a mysterious place without life or meaning.  In English we call it “a pit of despair”.

May everyone who sinks into a pit find a way to cry out for help and be rescued, whether the rescuer is a fellow human being or the voice of God within.

  1. See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
  2. g. Psalms 28, 30 and 88, all of which mention bor as a synonym for Sheol.
  3. Since the poem is an acrostic, verse 40 must begin with the letter nun, נ. When the prefix nun is attached to verbs in the perfect tense, it indicates the second person plural.  However, the prefix nun can also be used to indicate the simple passive (nifal) verb stem, and there are many other words that begin with a nun, so switching to the second person plural for a word beginning with nun is a deliberate choice on the part of the poet.
  4. See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?
  5. 1 Samuel 13:6, 1 Chronicles 11:17-18, and Proverbs 28:17.
  6. Jeremiah 41:7-9 and 1 Chronicles 11:17-18.
  7. Exodus 21:33-34, 2 Samuel 23:20, and 1 Chronicles 11:22.
  8. Psalm 7:16.
  9. The word bor is not used for a basement in the bible; the substructure of a building is called a yesod (יְסוֹד) = foundation, base.
  10. Unless they are disturbed by a diviner such as the witch of Endor, who summons the ghost of Samuel to speak briefly with King Saul in 1 Samuel 28:7-20.

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2

The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder.  Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?

Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child.  You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.

The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph.  In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?”  Joseph says a great deal more.

Joseph: Complicated Simple Son

In fact, he talks too much.  By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1  The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James J.J. Tissot

Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3

Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him.  Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel?  Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?

Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks.  As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4  He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.

The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6   It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.

One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others.  He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.

Joseph in Prison, by James J.J. Tissot

Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God?  Please tell me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information?  Probably both.  Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.

This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8  The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication.  He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food.  Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph.  From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9

When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him.  Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10  Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.

Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary.  For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order.  They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11

The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave.  Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him.  Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12  Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin.  Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13

But there is one more complication.  Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:

“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me.  Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life.  For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping …  So now, you did not send me here!  Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)

By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position.  As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17.  But he is still as full of himself as a simple child.  He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.

Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence.  Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon.  They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.

Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?  And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.  And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart.  But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”

Benjamin: Speechless Son

Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah.  He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14  I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15

But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds.  He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem.  He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave.  The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go.  The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!

He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery.  Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.

After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.

And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them.  And after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:14-15)

Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back.  He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.  He can react freely, and non-verbally.

Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family.  It does not even occur to him to question what is going on.  We do not learn whether he ever grows up.

  1. Genesis 37:2.
  2. Genesis 37:3-4.
  3. Genesis 37:5-9.
  4. Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration.  Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22).  Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
  5. Genesis 42:21.
  6. Genesis 39:8-9.
  7. Genesis 40:7.
  8. Genesis 41:25.
  9. Genesis 41:39-44.
  10. Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
  11. Genesis 43:33.
  12. Genesis 44:16-17.
  13. Genesis 44:18-45:3.
  14. Genesis 34:1-31.
  15. Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).


Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.


Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”

Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving you.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  You can read my blog post about it here: Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents.

Jethro (Yitro) and Moses, by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

The portion Yitro also gives us a portrait of a father-in-law well worth honoring.  Yitro visits his son-in-law Moses in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, where Moses he has led the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  The two men exchange greetings, with Moses bowing to the ground to honor his father-in-law.1  Yitro, a Midianite priest, rejoices over the good things that Moses’ God has done for Moses’ people, without showing a hint of jealousy.2  Then he makes an animal offering to God, and all the elders of the Israelites join him in the ritual meal.3  Finally, Yitro observes Moses wearing himself out by serving as the only judge for all his people’s disputes, asks him the reason, and then suggests a system for delegating authority.4  He leaves his son-in-law in a better position than when he arrived.


As I continue to write my book on morality in Genesis, I am now wrestling with the story of a less admirable father-in-law.  Judah, who once arranged to sell his brother Joseph as a slave,5 has three sons.  He chooses Tamar as a wife for his oldest son, Eir.6  But Eir dies after the wedding.

According to the law of yibum (also called levirate marriage), a woman who is childless when her husband dies must be given a place in the household of the deceased through an arrangement in which the dead husband’s brother or nearest male relative impregnates her, and when she has a son her boy inherits her dead husband’s portion of the family wealth.  Without yibum, the widow has no rights.

Judah dutifully sends his second son in to Tamar’s bed, but he refuses to perform, and shortly dies.  Now Judah has only one son left, young Shelah, and he is afraid that Shelah will also die if he gets near Tamar.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: “Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:11)

Tamar (veiled), by Marc Chagall

Tamar waits a long time in limbo, and then finally takes the yibum into her own hands.  When Judah goes to the annual sheep-shearing, he spots someone at a crossroad whom he assumes is a prostitute waiting for a customer.  It is Tamar, dressed like a prostitute and veiled so he does not recognize her.  She asks him to give her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge until he can pay her.  When Judah sends his friend with the payment, no prostitute can be found.  A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah condemns her to death for prostitution.  After all, she was supposed to remain chaste until he arranged yibum for her again.

At the last minute, Tamar sends Judah his own seal and staff with the message:

“To the man whose these are his I am pregnant.”  And she said: “Recognize, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”  (Genesis 38:25)

At that moment Judah changes.  He is the first person in the Torah to admit he was wrong.

And Judah recognized, and he said: “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:26)

He becomes an honorable father-in-law, returning Tamar to his household, where she has twin sons.  Judah also becomes an honorable man, who eventually offers himself as a slave to protect his innocent brother Benjamin.7


Not all parents-in-law, or all parents, are worthy of being honored.  But we can still treat them with respect, for being fellow humans and for who they might become.  The example of Judah reminds us that human beings can change.

  1. Exodus 18:7.
  2. Exodus 18:9-10.
  3. Exodus 18:12.
  4. Exodus 18:13-26.
  5. Genesis 37:26-27.
  6. Genesis 38:6.
  7. Genesis 44:32-33.

By Hand

Hands are powerful.  Hands are personal.

by Theodore Gericault, 1824

Both modern English and biblical Hebrew use the word for “hand” (yad, יָד) in many idioms.  And sometimes an idiom in an English translation of the Hebrew bible was adopted into English just because the “Old Testament” had so many English-speaking readers.

The Israelites leave Egypt “with a high hand” in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach.  Here is the King James translation:

And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.  (Exodus 14:8)

In English we say people are “high-handed” when they act as if they have the authority to accomplish something by themselves, without consulting anyone or considering anyone else’s concerns.  When the Israelites march out of Egypt, they feel arrogant for a change.  The pharaoh who oppressed them has begged them to go, they are taking everything Pharaoh wanted them to leave behind, and they have just commandeered  gold and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors.  They act as if they are invincible–until the Egyptian army catches up with them.

See my 2013 post on the subject here: Beshalach: High Handed.

In English we say “He was caught red-handed,” because a man at a murder scene with blood on his hands is probably the murderer.  The idiom applies to anyone caught committing a violation in front of witnesses or with obvious, incontrovertible evidence.

But if you arrange for someone to die while you are elsewhere and there is no evidence that “your hand was in it”, you might never be implicated.  Biblical Hebrew would phrase that idiom as “your hand was with” the obvious perpetrator.  For example, King David asks a woman with an imaginary story about two sons “Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?” to find out if Joab’s hand is in her ploy to make him change his mind about his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:19).

This week I am writing the part of my book on Genesis about when Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to caravan bound for Egypt.  Initially, most of Joseph’s ten older brothers want to kill him, then throw his body into one of the dry cisterns in the vicinity.  Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them not to get blood on their own hands.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw them into this pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t extend a hand (yad) on him,” in order to rescue him from their hand (yad) and return him to his father.  (Genesis 33:22)

In colloquial English Reuben is saying: “Don’t lay a hand on him.”   All the brothers cooperate by seizing Joseph, stripping off his fancy tunic, and throwing him into the cistern alive.  Then Reuben wanders off while the rest of Joseph’s brothers sit down for a meal and Joseph pleads for his life from the bottom of the cistern.  An Ishmaelite caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and one of the brothers, Judah, says:

What profit if we murder our brother and cover up his blood?  Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand (yad) won’t be on him; for he is our brother, our flesh.”  (Genesis 33:26-27)

What Judah does not say is that a slave sold in Egypt would probably have a short life-span.

Thus the Torah provides an example of how humans excuse their own behavior when they put someone in harm’s way or incite someone to commit a crime.  If I didn’t do it with my own hands, they think, I’m not really guilty.

In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers realize that they are guilty after all, and that guilt haunts them the rest of their lives.

Repost: Vayeishev & Mikeitz

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

During four and a half whirlwind days in Rome we saw, among other things, the Pantheon, built 113-125 C.E.; St. Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1612; and the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), built  1899-1904.  In some ways they all look alike: each is designed to enclose a large, impressive volume of space, horizontal as well as vertical; and the architecture is grand, with the circle, the square, and the Greek orders of columns and capitals repeated over and over again.  All three buildings project authority.

So I polished up my 2011 post on this week and next week’s Torah portions: Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.  The symbols of Judah’s and Joseph’s positions of authority include a cylinder seal and a signet ring, both used the way we use a signature to authorize a written order.  Judah also has his staff, as a clan leader.  And Joseph has his chariot, as the pharaoh’s second-in-command.


The architecture of sacred buildings can also include symbols of authority.  Roman Emperor Hadrian built the Pantheon as a temple for all the gods.  He had M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT (“built by Marcus Agrippa in his third consulate”) carved on the front to glorify the ruler who erected the previous temple on that site.  As well as being a religious building, the Pantheon reinforced the authority of Rome’s government.

Cathedra, St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s is the pope’s church, in Vatican City.  Behind the central altar, where only the pope may serve mass, is the “cathedra”.  A cathedra is the seat or throne of a bishop in a cathedral, and the throne of the pope in St. Peter’s.  Originally when the pope announced a decision “ex cathedra” he sat in that throne to show that his word had ultimate authority.

The only true stained glass window I saw in St. Peter’s was the sunburst window in the wall above the cathedra, with a symbolic dove in the center representing the Holy Spirit.  It is the focal point of the church’s interior, drawing the eye to the relatively dark chair below.

The synagogue that Roman Jews built to celebrate their liberation from the ghetto has several good wooden chairs on the bima, the raised platform at the east end.  One is where the person holding the Torah scroll sits while the scrolls is dressed again in its cover, and its two crowns are put on.  The other chairs are traditionally used to honor important members of the community.

Ark, Great Synagogue

But the focal point, as in all synagogues, is the ark where the crowned Torah scrolls are stored in between readings.

These symbols put the text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the position of the authority, rather than a person.  And any adult Jew (male, in this orthodox synagogue) can step up on the bima and lead the service.