Parsha VaYeshev records the beginning of the chronicles of Joseph, the longest single narrative of Bereshit. While the account appears simplistic, it’s difficult to understand the tenor of the story, because there is no real message that’s imparted. It follows the tone that was set earlier on in the narratives about Jacob, and too is much like a Shakespearean Comedy.
The object of the saga though is clear; the recount is a mere devise used to deliver the Children of Israel down to Egypt, to set in motion conditions they will find comfortable, and in which they will grow complacent, and ultimately to reverse their fortunes and bring about their oppression, so as to satisfy the second part of God’s covenant with Abraham: “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years”. Interestingly, whilst the reason for this parallel promise is never directly explained in the Torah, it can easily be understood as a device to set the scene for the central event of the Torah, and subsequently the Jewish psyche, Yitzeath Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt.
Joseph is certainly the most colourful of the dramatis personae of the Torah. He had around him an almost magical aura. He was endowed with beauty. The Torah described him as “being beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance”. He was also blessed by God in his endeavours: “The Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man”. He also had a darker side. In the opening chapter of the Parsha he is depicted as an obnoxious conceit, and worse, a tattletale who delighted in giving his father “evil reports” about his half-brothers. He had grandiose visions of a future where he would rule over his brother (ironically an accurate foretelling of his future) yet he was lacking in judgment. He freely shared his pretensions with his brothers, who unfortunately had come to despise him. Their hatred was stoked by Jacob’s own ill-considered actions. He loved Joseph, more so than any of his other sons, and unfortunately he did not keep his preference to himself. Jacob added fuel to the growing enmity towards Joseph, making and adorning Joseph with a tunic, woven from coloured strips of fine wool. Not only was his company insufferable, but now Joseph’s mere appearance would kindle his brothers’ envy. Yet it appears that Jacob appeared blind to their resentment.
All this serves as a prologue to perhaps the ugliest incident recorded in the Torah, yet one which was integral to the overlying account. One day Jacob sent Joseph to meet up with his brothers who were pasturing their flocks near Shechem. When his brothers espied him in the distance, brotherly animosity turned to thoughts of murder: The Torah described the brothers conspiring together and hatching a sinister scheme: “Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams”. Joseph’s murder was delayed by Reuben and then Judah convinced his brothers to sell their brother to a passing caravan of traders. They agreed, and shared the payment received of twenty shekels of silver, for their perfidy. Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt where he embarked on a journey that would take him to the heights of power.
The Torah emphasizes that God was with Joseph throughout his travails. For in fact this truly was God’s story, and Joseph and his brothers were merely actors in a series of events manipulated to fulfill the ominous prophecy of persecution. The hand of God which paved the path for Israel’s descent into Egypt will again reappear in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, at which time He will lead the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt and to the lands that has been promised at the onset of the story of the Children of Israel.