Parshat Hashavua

Parshah Vayeishev: It’s Not About What You Say…

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s parshah we learn about Joseph. Joseph we know as the dreamer, however he is also commonly referred to as Yosef ha’tzadik (Joseph the righteous), which begs the question…was he really a righteous person?

In the beginning of chapter 37 we are told that Joseph would bring evil reports about his brothers to their father. Rashi explains that what occurred was a misunderstanding. Joseph, according to Rashi, misinterpreted his brothers’ actions when in reality his brothers were innocent of Joseph’s charges. Joseph was already unpopular with his brothers at the time in which he decided to share his dreams with them, ultimately a decision that would forever change Joseph’s life. In 37:6-7, Joseph shared with his brothers, “…hear, if you please, this dream which I dreamt: Behold! – we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! – my sheaf arose and also remained standing; then behold! – your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” This sounds quite harsh to innocently share with your siblings. The Vilna Gaon writes, “Joseph understood the dreams to be prophecies, and a prophet is forbidden to conceal what he must reveal to others.” The Vilna Gaon defends what Joseph has done. However, he failed to recognize, just as Joseph failed to recognize, that the essence of a message is not the what, but the how.

Words are important and powerful, but they must be understood within their context. In addition to Joseph being despised by his brothers for gossiping about them to their father, Jacob displayed a blatant favoritism for Joseph. The Torah tells us as much in 37:3, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age, ”… The Zohar relates that Jacob favored Joseph because he had a spiritual and intellectual superiority relative to his brothers, which enabled Jacob to study with Joseph. Benjamin was born eight years after Joseph and according to Rashi, the eight years that Jacob spent with Joseph had a profound impact on Jacob and that is why he had such a profound love for Joseph. According to midrash, when Jacob was living at the home of Laban he learned at the yeshiva of Shem and Eber and he relayed the teachings from this yeshiva to Joseph.

We see there are limits to Jacob’s fondness for Joseph. Not recognizing the pain and further deterioration of his relationship to his brothers, Joseph recounts a second dream. In the second dream, Joseph relates that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars are all bowing down to him. As Joseph shares this dream with his father and his brothers, Jacob immediately scolds Joseph. In 37:10 Jacob states, “are we to come – I and your mother and your brothers – to bow down to you to the ground?” Joseph appears taken by surprise. He is speechless. There is no discussion, dialogue, or mention of any reply. There is only anger and jealously expressed by Joseph’s brothers towards him.

As a Chaplain I work in various environments and I am constantly engaged in spiritual care conversations. I take the people I am serving to uncomfortable territory. Few people are prepared to speak about their mortality, though I believe these conversations to be the most meaningful and ultimately the most rewarding conversations those I serve will ever have. It is not because of the information that I share, but rather the relationship and atmosphere I actively create. It is not my words that are remembered, but the way others feel when I am with them. I began my chaplaincy in a level one trauma hospital and was part of a palliative care team. Today, I am employed by a large continuous care retirement community (CCRC). In both settings I spend time learning those I serve to have the greatest impact. Joseph did the exact opposite. Joseph was quick to transmit information as fact without contemplating how it would be received. Joseph’s delivery was aloof and indifferent, hardly what we would equate with a righteous person.

In Judaism there is a practice called mussar, which means perfecting character traits. On a practical level mussar involves working on middot (Jewish values) and performing a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of one’s soul) on a regular basis. Mussar is a formal method of reflecting and improving moral conduct. Why am I bringing up mussar? It is a practice I engage with on a daily basis that informs my chaplaincy and my life. It helps my focus remain on how my presence affects others. It seems to me that Joseph could have benefitted from mussar in his early life. I began these words of Torah questioning whether or not Joseph should be deemed a righteous person. To be sure, I was quick to judge Joseph based on his youth. Later in life Joseph demonstrates patience, love, and concern for others. Joseph learns to forgive and exhibits a careful attitude with respect to his speech. We all have the power to be righteous. We all have the power to grow just as Joseph grew. We all have the power to impact others. It is my hope that we think carefully not only about what we say, but how it is likely to influence others. This does not mean that we sugar coat, but that we speak to our fellow human beings in a way in which we take into consideration who they are in valuing and respecting one another.

Shabbat shalom!