Joseph’s Dizzying Descent And Ascent


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 4:20 p.m.
(after 7th Chanukah candle)
Torah: Gen. 41:1-44:17
Haftorah: I Kings 3:15-4:1
Havdalah: 5:24 p.m. (then 8th candle)

When Joseph first makes his appearance in this week’s parsha, he is brought before Pharaoh, straight from the “bor,” dungeon, or a pit [Genesis 41:14, 37:24]. If one thinks about the inability of the human body to dive deep into the sea and then take a plane trip to a high altitude within 24 hours without risking decompression sickness or “the bends,” one wonders how Joseph reacts to his sudden change in altitude.

Joseph seems unfazed by his rapid ascent, as his behavior with Pharaoh seems consistent with those jailed alongside him. Joseph listens to Pharaoh’s dreams, with Joseph letting all know that “God will respond to Pharaoh “with an answer of peace” [Gen 41:15]. Though God has not had direct conversation with Joseph during this time, Joseph is aware of God’s ability to make Joseph an agent for dream interpretation, with Joseph telling the baker and the cupbearer, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” [Gen 40: 8] before decoding their respective dreams. After deciphering the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph requests that he be remembered and brought up out of jail as he has done nothing wrong, first when thrown into the pit by his brothers and taken from the land of the Hebrews, and then when thrown into the dungeon for sexual assault as the result of false testimony by Potiphar’s wife.

What Joseph holds onto is his Hebrew identity, as well as the knowledge that God interprets dreams. What his brothers hold onto, throughout their lives, is their guilt and complicity in Joseph’s abduction to Egypt. When they come to Pharaoh’s court, the brothers are accused of espionage by the ruler they speak with, and are thrown into jail. After three days, the brothers agree that one of them will be left behind in Egypt, while the others return to bring Benjamin to the palace.

The first reaction of the brothers to the accusation that they intended to see the land “in its nakedness” [Gen 42:12], is odd. They know they have come to get food in a famine, not to spy. When ordered to return with their brother, they say, “we are guilty concerning our brother” [Gen. 42:21].

The guilt they express at this moment is about having seen Joseph’s “soul’s anguish,” not listening to Joseph’s pleas when they originally threw him into the pit [Gen. 42:21]. Yet, when faced again with a similar situation (one brother imprisoned and isolated from the others) they do nothing to protest the removal of Shimon from among them. Just as the brothers left Joseph in the pit and returned to their meal [Gen. 37:25], they now return to Canaan with their provisions, without their brother, untroubled by Shimon’s fate until once again they are hungry.

The brothers have sacks filled with money that is not theirs (money Joseph had returned to their sacks).  Instead of going back to return it as they knew they should not have it, the brothers continued on their journey home.  Though they have not stolen, they are guilty. They did not try their best to make restitution and they left their brother with no statement of regret [Gen. 42:25-28].

The brothers cling to the idea of their guilt, because they have not changed the behavior that led to it until, upon their return to Egypt, Judah speaks up and pleads for Benjamin and for the suffering of their father.

Joseph is not a tragic figure despite the many awful situations he is placed in: exiled by his brothers; imprisoned and distant from his family; alone until he begins a family of his own, naming his children for the beauty of forgetting [Gen. 41:51] and the paradoxical fertility [Gen. 41:52] he finds in this alien place.

Yet Joseph does not stay mired in the past but sustains himself by his constant ability to perceive and understand a situation. Joseph is an “ish matzliach,” a successful man [Gen. 39:2], one who is “navon v’hacham,” discerning and wise [Gen. 41:39], qualities that enable his success.

He recognizes his brothers immediately [Gen. 42:7-8], though they fail to see him as they could not see his suffering when first casting him in the pit. 

The verb for recognition runs throughout this section of Genesis: failing to  recognize a son [Gen. 27:23], or a daughter in law [Gen. 38:25], or a wife [Gen. 31:32].

Joseph, who continues to recognize himself as a Hebrew even in Egyptian guise, is much better off than his brothers who are only able to cling to their guilt.    

Joseph is not tragic because he has consistency, able to recognize both the meaning of dreams and how to encourage people to view their own actions in the hope of change. n

Beth Kissileff is the editor of “Reading Genesis” (Continuum 2016), in which academics use the tools of their particular fields to add a layer to our understanding of the Genesis text.