Posted in Dvar Torah, on December 12, 2014

Joseph the “Righteous One” – Parshat VaYeishev – Jonathan Levine, West Coast NCSY Alumnus

This week’s Torah portion marks a huge turning point in Jewish history: the start of the Hebraic dynasty’s descent to Egypt. Joseph is the cause of much animosity among his brothers and theyJonathan_Levineplot to kill him. They eventually conspire to sell him to a group of merchants who, in turn, sell him to an Egyptian aristocrat. The details and facts of the story are a point of much dispute among the commentaries. It is unclear who sold Joseph to whom, how many times he was sold, whether or not the brothers were aware of the actual sale that took place, etc. (It seems as if every single person who has ever written a book on the Torah has his/her own opinion as to how the events transpired!) At any rate, we know that Joseph’s sale to Egypt marked the beginning of a long saga that would end with the Exodus and the creation of the Jewish nation.

It is interesting to note that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were given the appellation “forefather” while none of Jacob’s kids were given that description. In fact, the twelve sons of Jacob were not given any special titles. There is, however, one exception. In later Jewish literature Joseph is always referred to as Yoseph HaTzadik, or “Joseph the righteous one.” The question arises: what makes Joseph’s story special and what aspect of his personality earned him the nickname “the righteous one?”

When we are introduced to Joseph, righteous is the far from a fitting description of his personality. Joseph is described as a “youth.” The Sages tell explain this to mean that he was immature and used to take time to make himself look handsome.[1]

We are told that Joseph used to “bring his father their evil report.”[2] For lack of a better word, Joseph was a tattletale. Rashi expounds further and explains that Joseph would look for any negativity he could find in his brothers’ actions and retail it to his father.[3] This causes animosity between Joseph and his brothers.

Once the situation is already tense, we are told that “Joseph dreamt a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and they hated him even more.”[4] The dream he tells is one that tells of Joseph’s future dominion over his other family members through the symbolic sheaves bowing down to Joseph’s sheaf. The brothers’ hate brewed here based on two points: Firstly, Joseph had the audacity to share this dream of domination with them. Second, as we know from modern psychology, a person’s dreams represent his inner and subconscious emotions. The brothers assumed that Joseph’s dream was a manifestation of a larger superiority complex he had over his brothers.[5]

Then, Joseph has a second dream: “And he dreamt yet another dream…and told it to his father, and to his brothers.”[6] This only strengthens the hate between the brothers and him.

These actions seem to show a character filled with pride immature sense of self-importance, very far from the implications of the title “righteous one.”

The key to understanding Joseph’s righteousness can be found in seeing Joseph’s change as the story progresses. He certainly starts out as an immature and arrogant tattletale, taunting his brothers over his father’s affection, but as he starts to suffer, his character becomes refined quite significantly.

He is thrown into the pit, sold into slavery, and finds himself as a successful slave in the house of Potiphar, an esteemed Egyptian official. We are then told, “Joseph had an attractive physique and good looks.”[7] The Sages, here too, explain that Joseph would pamper himself in order to look good[8]. He seemed to have been drawn into the lifestyle of a high class Egyptian and has yet to learn his lesson.

The wife of Potiphar, Joseph’s master, tries to seduce him. Joseph is faced with the conflict between his desire and his morality, what seems to be set up as the ultimate deciding point of his destiny and future. In the climax of his successful career and at the point of no return, Joseph overcomes his desire and declares: “how can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”[9] Joseph sacrifices everything for morality. He is thrown in jail and loses his royal lifestyle and his success. From that point on we will begin to see the ultimate turn around in the personality of the character that we had assumed was immature and arrogant. We will see next week (and throughout the rest of the nation’s time in Egypt) the influence he has on Pharaoh and Egypt, and how his role as “Joseph the righteous” becomes an integral part to the narrative of Jewish history.

Being righteous is not necessarily about being a morally superior individual. Righteousness here is defined by being able to face the past and be willing to sacrifice comfort for morality. Joseph is awarded the nickname “the righteous one” because he was able to learn from his mistakes and change his life.

If we want to follow Joseph’s example towards righteousness, we don’t need to worry about mistakes we have made in the past. We should not feel restricted by relationships we might have ruined through our immaturity. Our objective must be to pursue what is “right” and choose that path over the more comfortable one. Once we prioritize the right things and shed ourselves of our past immaturity we too can earn the nickname of “the righteous one.”

Shabbat Shalom!


Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast.  He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.

[1] Bereishit Rabba quoted by Rashi to Genesis 37:2

[2] Genesis 37:2

[3] See Rashi to the above verse who seems to echo the Midrash in Bereishit Rabba; Also see Rashi and Rashbam for specific examples of the reports.

[4] 37:5

[5] See Ramban

[6] 37:9-10

[7] 39:6

[8] Bereishit Rabba quoted by Rashi

[9] 39:9