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Which side are you on?


My dear spouse loves Joseph. I hold no such affection for Rachel’s oldest, particularly this week when he behaves like the 17-year-old snot-nosed kid he is. He rats out his brothers when they’re tending the flock (and Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father). He walks around in a specially made tunic of many colors. He brags about his dreams: suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf (phallic symbol, anyone?). And as if that wasn’t enough, he reports another dream: that he is worshipped by the sun, the moon, and eleven stars who bow down to him.

Not that I’m defending such behavior, but I can understand why his brothers might contemplate throwing him into a pit.

I find that one either tends towards rooting for Joseph or feeling highly ambivalent about him, i.e., not-rooting for him. The aforementioned spouse says that he relates to Joseph and his thirst for recognition, and I quote: he has very big dreams, but just gets in his own way, has to be beaten down again and again before he can use his gifts with humility. I just can’t go there. I’ve tried. I get it intellectually, how I should have compassion, try to see the story in more than one dimension — but emotionally, I’m stuck somewhere else entirely.

So friends, here is my question for you: which side of this divide do you fall? Thumbs up or down for Joseph the non-patriarch, the guy who gets thrown into a pit, is sold off to Egyptians, thrown in prison for refusing to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, and goes into next week’s story interpreting dreams while in gaol?

Let me hear from you….

(My poem for this week’s portion, What the Day Can’t Contain, the Night Will Embrace, can be found here.)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah Rubin permalink
    11/23/2010 9:03 am

    Well, since you asked…

    I have long been fascinated by the upstart and obnoxious energy of adolescents who are destined to become the great leaders of the future. I don’t think leaders can lead without a certain amount of hubris. On the other hand, I think we can learn something from a combination of Kabbalistic and Mussar traditions – the notion of balancing our din/rachamim sides, of maintaining both self and humility in the face of each other, tzelem of the Other. Humility is not humiliation – it is not selflessness to the extreme, but, to borrow from R.Simcha Bunim who borrowed from Torah, the recognition both that “the whole world was made for me,” and that “I am made of dust.”

    As a leader, I want people to follow – but I also know that I have to raise them up to lead, which means I need to be able/willing to follow as well.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      11/23/2010 12:38 pm

      Having raised adolescents into young & fabulous women, I get the obnoxious energy angle and I’m in favor of it (even, on occasion, when it is directed my way). I even know that I still have some of that kind of energy. And yet… there is something about Joseph that gets to me. Or something about the singular view that he is all that. Thanks for the teachings in your reply. I’d like to shoot more from a place of wholeness and less from the hip.

      • sarah rubin permalink
        11/24/2010 9:42 am

        I admit to having been one of those upstart adolescent girls at one point in my life. I’m glad I survived it…and that my mother did, too. Not everyone I know survived adolescence, and that makes me sad.

        As to Joseph being “all that,” – I believe over the course of the Joseph story he grows. I also believe that there are lessons to be learned from Torah (and almost any teacher) in the negative – what our teachers did that we learn NOT to do.

        Thanks for your continued wisdom!

  2. Dan Price permalink
    11/23/2010 12:38 pm

    One wonders why Jacob especially loved Joseph. Was it only because he was Rachel’s son, or did he see something special that his other sons didn’t? Although one could argue that being Jacob’s favorite isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. His obnoxiously arrogant start aside, I think Joseph turned into an outstanding adult. He was clearly a great leader, which seems to require a touch of arrogance, but he was also highly principled, humble (in an arrogant sort of way), compassionate and intelligent. As an aside, I think most great leaders share these traits, and many potentially great leaders fall short for lack of any one of them. He was perhaps a bit too egear to see his brothers squirm, but then he did forgive and embrace them. I do wonder if he would have been as willing to forgive if it hadn’t been for his own success, but the thing I most admire is the way he was never defeated. He always played the hand he was dealt and managed to win with it. He would have made a good Dickens character; in the end he prevailed because he was both strong and good.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      11/23/2010 5:14 pm

      Also, let’s not forget that he had God on his side – which in this case turned out to be a very good thing.

  3. Herb permalink
    11/23/2010 3:15 pm

    Hi Sue: I opt for a third alternative, relying on “and” rather than “or”. People are not perfect, nor even all good (e.g. Moses), nor all bad (e.g. Bush). People can reform, evolve, mature (e.g. Shindler of “List” fame). Many great people, heroes, etc. have troubled childhood’s. I’ve even heard that promiscuous, young women (and men), mature into responsible parents. My childhood contains events that I’m ashamed of, but on balance I’m proud of my adult values conduct, and accomplishments. I see the world as mostly grey, seldom black and white.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      11/23/2010 10:19 pm

      Herb! How can this game be successful if you won’t play? Really – just pick one side just this once.

  4. sue swartz permalink*
    11/23/2010 5:19 pm

    This one is from my friend Bakol (via Facebook): Don’t know how to comment on your blog and even though it is 2 days BEFORE Thanksgiving- i absolutely will not ‘weigh in’ but I am happy to share some thoughts about Yosef.

    As a life long pessimist I have always appreciated his comment that (his brothers ) meant if or evil but God meant it for good. I love he was able to see something in the bigger picture where the bigger picture is ALWAYS for good. I have only very recently been able to occasionally ‘see’ that way and I am grateful.

    As for his smarmy attitude- I hold his father responsible for setting him up as the special brother. It is -I think- a seductive place. As a a parent of only one child i have not been put to the test but I did see it in my family of origin with a long awaited son born after 3 girls.The resentment was great and lives on and the benefits for my brother were quite short lived.

    As a child of a father like this I was quite surprised I became the favored one just in the last decade and altho I had always wanted that approval I am conscious of not being seduced by it.
    So rachmunes from me for Yosef and real admiration of how he did tikkun.

  5. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    11/24/2010 2:29 pm

    I’ve actually thought a lot about Joseph. David B. and I even did a torah study on him a few years ago. I’m very empathic toward him (on Bruce’s side, alas). All you say is true, but as for the early days, how does a young person learn to live with favoritism and special gifts? Look how clueless his big brothers are? Why expect more from him, so much younger? That’s just the beginning. He really does change. He grows and gradually acquires some humility and, even better, the capacity to forgive and even love those who all but killed him. Finally, he has emotions! A man who cries! When he sees his brothers he has to exit himself briefly to sob and then collect himself (the time is inappropriate to identify himself which he rightly perceives). It’s not his fault that he was so talented and so favored. Where were models to teach him how to cope with these “gifts” so that he can get along with others, even worse, his brothers who are competing for the same resources?

  6. 11/28/2010 8:58 pm

    I don’t like Joseph so much in the beginning, but he grows on me as his story unfolds. I never do hold his ambition against him, just the way he expresses it. I think we need a certain amount of ambition, or else nothing would ever get done. But when a lack of humility is thrown in, as happens with Joseph before he matures, then it gets to be problematic.

    On the other hand, I do like how the Torah does not cast all of our ancestors to be saintly people. So many of them are delightfully human – and I find a certain comfort in that.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      11/29/2010 2:41 pm

      True, too true. I think I’ve now been sufficiently convinced to reconsider my reaction to Joseph. I make no guarantees, but thanks to all.

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