Torah Portion


Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

We have just concluded the biblical account of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau for the birthright-blessings, the momentous conflict regarding the heir to the mission and covenant of Abraham.  We now enter the next generation, Jacob-Israel and his twelve sons.  A small, nuclear family is now emerging as an incipient nation. The question is upon whose shoulders will the mantle of future Hebraic leadership now devolve?

We are no longer dealing with one individual like Abraham standing alone against an idolatrous and immoral world; we are now speaking of twelve brothers, potentially twelve tribes, and the heir apparent must have the requisite strength, courage and wisdom to unite them to convey ethical monotheism to the entire world.  The task is daunting and the very future of humanity is dependent upon the proper choice for leader.

Even though Jacob’s sons are still young and the “tribes” they will one day represent have yet to emerge, our biblical portion, Vayeshev, introduces us to the major contenders, From Jacob’s perspective, the heir has already been chosen:  “These are the generations of Jacob; Joseph was seventeen years old….” (Gen 37:2).  It is the beautiful, clever, first-born son of his beloved wife Rachel who must be the standard-bearer of the Abrahamic Covenant as the family of Jacob enters history as the nation of Israel.  Indeed, Jacob presents him with the “striped colored cloak” as a sign of his election!

As the story unfolds, however, there are apparent weaknesses within Joseph’s personality that make him unsuitable for the prize, at least at this stage of his life.  He reports their every peccadillo back home to their father, he treats them with supercilious disdain and brags to them about his dreams of mastery. He has the capacity to unify the brothers; however, the problem is that they are all united against him, even in their desire to kill him.

It is these dreams that appear to be Joseph’s major flaw.  The greatest legacy that Abraham received from God to bequeath to his descendants was the Promised Land of Israel, but Joseph hankers after the sheaves of grain produced by the more sophisticated Egypt, super-power of the Middle East, “gift of the Nile”.  And even more problematic, while God was at the center of Abraham’s universe and of Jacob’s dream of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, Joseph is at the center of his own dreams, with the eleven sheaves of grain bowing down to him.  Yes, he understands the familial mission to the world, but while he dreams of the sun, moon and stars, he sees them, too, as bowing down to him!  The God of Abraham is nowhere in his dreams.

The brothers, take a page out of Rebecca’s textbook.  They believe their father to be blinded by his love of Rachel, so for the good of the family and future nation, they plot to get rid of Joseph; and deceive their father into thinking that he has been torn apart by a wild beast.

It is at this juncture that the most likely candidate for heir-apparent comes to the fore, proving his selfless high morality in his attempt to save Joseph from his brothers.  Reuben is, the first-born son of Jacob, albeit to the unappreciated wife Leah.  Logic dictates that he would have had most cause to rejoice at Joseph’s disappearance, making he, Reuben, Jacob’s most logical next choice.

Nevertheless, just as the brothers grab the hapless Joseph and are about to kill him, Reuben hears (the cries of the crowd) and saves him from their hands; (Reuben) says, “let us not murder a soul” (Gen 37:21).  Strangely, the very next verse (37:22) begins, “And Reuben said to them, Do not shed blood; cast him into this pit….”  Why does the Bible have Reuben “speak” twice without anyone else speaking in between?

The great biblical teacher, Nechama Leibowitz, explains that in a Shakespearian play there would appear a parenthesis between both of Reuben’s speeches which would read, “Crowd murmurs in dissent.”  Reuben underestimated his brothers’ hatred; he thought that with a few ethical directives, he could save Joseph.  But apparently, he lacked the authority and the wisdom to deflect their murderous designs.  They cast Joseph into the pit, which would certainly have become his grave had he remained there.  By the time Reuben returns to save him, Joseph is gone.

Now a third unlikely candidate appears on the scene, Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob.  He is ethical as well as wise; he understands the importance of saving Joseph; he even refers to him as our “flesh and blood, our brother,” but he understands that the only way to dissuade the brothers from murdering Joseph is by gaining profit for them.  Why kill him and receive nothing in return? Why not sell him, which will bring profit as well as removing him from the picture? (Gen 37:26,27).  The wise Judah wins the day!

Who eventually receives the birthright and why?  Do Joseph, Reuben and Judah change and develop as they grown older?  Our story is only beginning…



Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

Torah Portion – Pesach
Torah Portion: Shelach
Torah Portion – Behar

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