A Portrait of Yosef
Tranlation by Yaakov Tzemach
In last week’s parsha, Yosef hit rock bottom. He was thrown in a pit, sold into slavery and, when he finally seemed to recover, lost everything as he was thrown in jail on an a false accusation of adultery. But in Parshat Miketz, Yosef’s life takes on a new direction. Yosef rises to greatness and becomes second in power to Pa’aro in the Land of Egypt. He marries a girl of high social stature and has two children with her. The names he gives his children provide insight into how Yosef relates to his previous life. He names his firstborn son “‘Menashe’ - ki neshni Elokim, for God as let me forget my toil and my entire father’s house” (Bereishit - 41:51). The word “Neshani” means forgetting. Yosef thanks God for helping him successfully forget “his toil,” meaning the hardships he experienced and his “entire father’s house.” Yosef forgets everything - both the bad and the good. Repressing the past in its entirety enables one who has undergone a traumatic experience start life over. A similar coping mechanism has been utilized by many holocaust survivors who chose not to tell their children about the lives they had in Europe -- not about the camps and not about their pre-war lives, not even about their parents and siblings because any remembrance of the past can reopen old wounds.
With the birth of his second son, Yosef changes his relationship to his past: “And name of the second [son] he called ‘Efraim - ki hifrani Elokim -because HaShem has made me fruitful in the land of my sorrows.’” (Bereishit 41:52). Yosef chose to commemorate the suffering he had experienced, and even to see the good that emerged from “the land of [his] sorrows.” Thus, Yosef achieves the level of his father, Yaakov, who sought out the blessing embedded in the pain from his fight with the angel. In light of this we can give a symbolic interpretation of Yaakov's preference to Efraim over Menashe when blessing them at the end of his life.
The Midrash (Tanchuma Vayechi 17) brings a story that highlights Yosef’s transformation. The Midrash tells of Yaakov’s funeral procession, which on its way back to Mitztrayim passed by the pit into which Yosef was thrown by his brothers years earlier. When Yosef’s brothers saw that they were approaching the pit, they feared that revisiting the crime scene would push Yosef to take revenge. However, contrary to their negative expectations, Yosef stood in front of the pit and made the following brocha: “Blessed is God (HaMakom) that made for me a miracle in this place (Bamakom hazeh)”. This story, which closes the Midrash Tanchuma on Sefer Bereishit, describes the emotional and spiritual heights that Yosef attained. Yosef is able to contemplate the pain and see the blessing hidden in it. Like many midrashim, this story is rooted in ideas explicitly written in the psukim. The Torah describes the brothers’ concern that Yosef take revenge upon Yaakov’s death (Bereishit 50:15) and Yosef’s calming response, as he explains that everything is part of a Divine Plan: “And you thought to do to me evil. God thought it for good in order to make as today, to support a great nation” (Bereishit 50:20).
Cold and Lonely on High
It would be overly simplistic to say that the story of Yosef and his brothers has a happy ending. The irony is that just as Yosef learned that what seems bad at first can turn out to be good, likewise he learned that what seems good at first can also turn out to be not so good. When he was young, Yosef dreamt of power. He excitedly told his family of his dreams in which they all prostrate to him. When the dreams are actualized and he rises to power, Yosef learns that it can be cold and lonely at the top. After their father dies, the brothers fall on their collective faces and offer themselves as slaves, pleading with Yosef to forgive them. When this happens -- and this seems to be the ultimate actualization of his dreams -- however, Yosef, instead of feeling validation, breaks and cries (Bereishit 50:17). When Yosef achieves his childhood dream, he wants nothing more than to break the distance and estrangement that had developed between himself and his brothers. He wants to simply be one of them.
It is told about HaRav Kook that, when his mother died, he cried very bitterly and was completely inconsolable. When someone tried to comfort him by saying that this is the way of the world, he responded as follows: “You don’t understand. Until now there was one person in the world that called me ‘Avreim’le’ and now there is nobody.”
We need leaders who understand what Yosef ultimately understood, that leadership is a responsibility and not a priviledge. We need leaders that choose the position of authority not because they are motivated by their egos, but because they feel a sense of mission.
The Son of Yaakov and Rochel
Yosef is a replica of his parents, Yaakov and Rochel, and through this we can understand his unique personality traits. From birth, Yosef had his mother’s charisma and his father’s love. But Yosef’s innate abilities laid latent in him until he went down a long, hard road. The turning point in his life happened in Potiphar’s house, when he stood strong against temptation at the hand of his master’s wife. Rashi brings the midrash that teaches that Yosef passed the test because “the likeness of his father’s face appeared to him” (Rashi Bereishit 39:11). He inherited the ability to struggle with and overcome his desires from his father, and it becomes clear that he has the power to continue in his father’s ways. On the strength of his unique combination of Yaakov and Rochel’s attributes, Yosef attains heights that his father never achieved. The combination of his ability to struggle with evil and withstand hardships, together with the grace and charisma he inherited from his mother, made Yosef a true leader.
The synergy of these strengths is already mentioned as far back as Noach’s besting to his sons: “God will bestow beauty on Yafet and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Bereishit 9:27). This blessing connects the physical beauty of Yafet to Shem. The verse notably omits any description of Shem’s strengths, but we can see Yaakov (who also sat in tents) as a direct continuation of Shem’s legacy, and the union of Yaakov and Rochel as the actualization of this brocha.
Eisav and Dovid
As we previously suggested, Rochel’s best traits complement Yaakov and are analogous to Eisav’s outstanding qualities; Yosef’s character, meanwhile, combines the traits of Yaakov and Rochel. There is, however, another biblical hero who shares some of Eisav’s character traits. There are two biblical figures whose red hair is emphasized -- Eisav and Dovid Hamelech. In the story of Dovid’s anointment as king it says: “And he sent and he brought him and he was redheaded with beautiful eyes and goodly appearance. And HaShem said, ‘Arise, anoint him for this is he’” (Shmuel I 16:12). This description caught the eyes of the early commentators. The kabalist, Rav Yosef Gikatilla, in his book Sha’arei Orah (Cahpter 2) sees Eisav’s traits in Dovid. Dovid’s ability as a warrior, he claims, come from Eisav, while his “goodly appearance” come from Yaakov. I would like to suggest the opposite: Dovid’s beauty is connected specifically to his red-headedness (“And the Plishti looked and he saw Dovid and he disdained him for he was a red-headed lad with a beautiful appearance” - ibid 17:42). Like Eisav, Dovid also had good looks and charisma; he is loved by Michal and Yonaton and all of Am Yisroel. On the other hand, like Yaakov, Dovid had the fortitude to fight for the things that were important to him and, he too, was pursued by enemies. This combination of traits made him the ideal leader of the Jewish people. Today, we are awaiting Moshiach ben Dovid, waiting for a leader that has this special combination of qualities.