Joseph Educates His Brothers


If education is about the process of transformation, of learning about and analyzing past events, Joseph is a master educator — and he devised a final exam for his brothers.

Joseph is called “hacham ve’navon,” wise and understanding [Genesis 41:39]. What are Joseph’s goals for his siblings? To have the same empathy and compassion for Joseph that any human should have for another; not to see a sibling as a commodity, something that one can sell for money as his brothers do [Gen. 37].

The Joseph cycle has literary links to a number of other Biblical stories, particularly two tales of prostitution in which people are sold. In the story of Judah and Tamar, interspersed within the Joseph narrative, Judah assumes his daughter-in-law Tamar is a prostitute when she asks what price he will pay to be with her [Gen. 38:16]. And there is the story of Solomon and the two actual prostitutes, both involved in selling their own bodies, putting a price on everything. They each claim to be the mother of a baby; one, of course, is lying. Solomon offers to chop the baby in half, giving half to each mother. The compassion of one of the women has been enkindled, “nikhmeru rahameha” [I Kings 3:26], and she offers the baby to the other, rather than see it killed. The story ends with Solomon declaring, “Give [the compassionate woman] the living child and do not slay it, she is its mother” [I Kings 3:26].

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:14 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 44:18-47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:16-28
Havdalah: 5:18 p.m.

When, in the Egyptian palace, Joseph first sees Benjamin, his only brother from their mother Rachel, Joseph feels the same compassion, “nikhmeru rahamav” [Gen. 43:30] that the mother in Solomon’s palace felt for her child. Now, Joseph must devise a way for his siblings to have that same compassion both for him and for each other. The Children of Israel will never be able to work as a group without having that compassion and concern for each other.

Though it has taken time, Joseph the dreamer is now realizing his own dreams, connecting back to the family of his youth. First, he takes his brother Shimon and places him in jail [Gen. 42:24] without any brothers’ objection. Shimon remains in Egypt, just as Joseph remained in the pit while his brothers sat and ate their bread [Gen. 37:25], so no change in their behavior is yet apparent.

At the end of last week’s parsha, Joseph instructs his servants to secretly place his goblet in the bag of Benjamin, the youngest brother [Gen. 44:2]. Then Joseph tells the brothers that he does not wish to punish all of them, only the one in whose sack the goblet has been found, while the other brothers should “alu le’shalom el avihem,” go in peace to your father [Gen 44:17]. It is the opposite from when their father sends Joseph in peace to his brothers.

Where earlier, Joseph restrained himself from showing public emotion [Gen. 43:31], once he sees Judah pleading with him on behalf of Benjamin, Judah fearing the distress that any harm to Benjamin will cause their father, Joseph can no longer restrain himself [Gen. 45:1]. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers [Gen. 45:1].

Judah aced the exam, moving himself and his brother Joseph by his compassion for the emotions and feelings of Jacob, his father, whose “soul is bound” [Gen. 44:30] with the soul of Benjamin. Just as Solomon moved a prostitute to act as a mother by rousing her compassion, Joseph moves his own siblings to act as brothers, in a public and meaningful display of concern and love.

One of the greatest teachers and students in the Torah is not the one you might expect. We all know about Moses, tutored by God directly, known as Moses our teacher — Moshe Rabbeinu. But if we want to think about the point of education — why we do it, how it is done, what its purpose is — there are no better passages than the last 13 chapters of Genesis, the Joseph stories in Genesis [Chapters 37-50]. Joseph is a master teacher, which is nowhere more apparent than in Vayigash when he finally gets at least one of the brothers, Judah, to act with brotherly compassion. 

Beth Kissileff taught Shakespeare and Confronting Evil: Introduction to Critical Reading at the University of Pittsburgh this past semester. She is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis.” Visit her online at