One of the things I like about reading these family stories in Genesis is seeing how many similarities we have with our ancestors. Their concerns, their conflicts, their ethical dilemmas are, in some ways, not so different from our own. These are ancient texts, thousands of years old, and the oral traditions they are derived from are even older. And yet human behaviour is still the same.
The Torah does not portray the matriarchs and patriarchs as heroes or saints. They were ordinary people with good qualities and flaws. I see them as the prototypical dysfunctional Jewish family. We have different ways of talking about it now, but many of their issues are familiar to us. We see examples of sibling rivalry, manipulative behaviour and physical abuse, to name a few.
The narrative of the favourite son comes up repeatedly in Genesis, with its associated conflicts and unhappiness in the families. The patriarchs were favourites and they had favourites.
Isaac was Abraham’s favourite child; Ishmael ended up being sent away with his mother.
Rebecca’s favourite was definitely Jacob. She plotted with him to deceive his father and cheat his brother. Having been a favourite, Jacob repeated the pattern with his own sons.
Last week’s Torah portion describes how Joseph was his father’s favourite, the first-born son of favourite wife Rachel. Being treated as the best in the family, it is unsurprising that he grew up to be a conceited young man, oblivious of his brothers’ feelings. When the brothers saw that he was the one their father loved more, they hated Joseph and could not bear to speak civilly to him. They talked about killing him, but instead decided to throw him in a pit in the wilderness. Eventually, they decided to sell Joseph into slavery, but before they could do that he was kidnapped and sold by some passing traders. He ended up in prison in Egypt, where he gained a reputation as an interpreter of dreams.
As we just heard from Benji, our portion this week starts off with Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and advising Pharaoh to prepare for the coming famine. As a result, Joseph was released from prison and given a high-ranking position: a real rags-to-riches story.
Eventually, during the famine, ten of Joseph’s brothers travelled to Egypt to buy food, where they came before Joseph. In a prime example of manipulative behaviour, he pretended to be a stranger to his brothers, accused them of being spies, demanded they bring the youngest brother Benjamin
back to Egypt, and then took brother Simeon hostage. Later, when the brothers come back with Benjamin, he contrived to make it look like Benjamin had stolen something and imprisoned him.
Why did he do all that? Was it revenge? The text does not say, but the whole set up provides a framework for several acts of teshuvah.
The Hebrew word teshuvah is often translated as repentance, but there is more to it than that. The root of the word is about return, and a better translation might be returning to the right path.
The great medieval scholar Maimonides set out the steps to go through in the process of teshuvah, these include
• Recognising what you did that was wrong or hurtful
• Feeling remorse about your actions
• Stopping doing the harm
• Resolving never to do it again
• Making restitution for damages you caused
• Appeasing the person you hurt
• Confessing to God about your wrongdoing
• And finally, when faced with a similar situation or opportunity, not doing the harm again. This is how you know your teshuvah is complete.
Our parashah contains several examples of steps on the path of teshuvah. In chapter 42, verse 21 the brothers said to each other, “we are being punished on account of our brother, we saw his soul’s distress and did not listen.” This could be recognising what they did was wrong and feeling remorse about their actions. They looked at things from Joseph’s point of view, perhaps for the first time.
The older brothers could have stayed angry about the way Jacob favoured Benjamin in much the same way he had favoured Joseph in the past. Instead, they seemed to have matured, learned from their mistakes and decided to honour and care for their father.
Reuben was the brother who urged the others to throw Joseph into the pit in the wilderness all those years ago. In today’s story he has changed enough to promise his father to bring Benjamin back from Egypt. OK maybe pledging the lives of his own sons in exchange for the life of Benjamin does not sit right with us now, but the gesture shows how serious he was, and how much regard he had for his father’s feelings. It is an example of the final step of teshuvah, when faced with a similar situation or opportunity, not doing the harm again.
In a similar vein, it had been Judah’s idea to sell Joseph into slavery when the brothers were holding him in the pit. In this week’s portion, when Jacob expressed his worries about Benjamin leaving, Judah reassured his father that he would take responsibility. In chapter 43, verse 9 he said, “if I do not bring him back to you and plant him before you, I shall stand condemned before you for all time.” Another gesture showing care for Jacob, regard for his feelings and a desire not to do harm again.
We are also starting to see the beginnings of change and teshuvah for Joseph. He named his oldest son Manasseh, which sounds like the word for forgetting, saying “God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house.” Clearly, he did not forget, if he had he would not have chosen the name. But he had matured and gained a sense of perspective. Maybe it was an aspiration, so the past would not burden him anymore. Having endured abuse by his brothers in his family of origin, he tried to put it behind him with his own family.
There is a rabbinic tradition that says, the reason the blessing for sons on Shabbat is “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” is that they were the first brothers in the Torah who were not rivals. It seems Joseph had no favourite between them. Maybe he did manage to change the destructive pattern of previous generations.
We do not see the outcome of the way Joseph changed in this parashah. We must wait until next week to read about what happened. Here is a bit of a spoiler, Joseph revealed himself, was honest with his brothers and they were reconciled. He embarked on the steps of teshuvah where he felt remorse about his actions, stopped doing harm and tried to appease the people he hurt.
In between all the weird shenanigans, dreams and plot twists, for me, the story of Joseph has an uplifting message: if we reflect on our actions and try to return to the right path, change is possible.