Dvar Torah, Shabbat Vayeshev 5768, 12/1/07

This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave 12/1/2007, at my synagogue, Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, California.

This week in parshat Vayeshev we begin reading the story of Yosef, and we'll stay with his story, his dramatic falls and rises, for the rest of the book of Breishit.

Chanukah, of course, starts next week, and Chanukah is something of a pair with Purim -- times when during the amidah and bentsching we thank Hashem for saving us. So it's fitting that so soon before Chanukah I'm going to talk about parallels between Yosef and Esther. There's actually a lot of similarity between Yosef and Ester, whose story we read in the Megillah every Purim. They both come to power through a foreign king -- Yosef will be second-in-command to Pharaoh, Esther will be Achashverosh's queen -- and they help save the lives of their people. Key events in their lives tend to occur during banquets, though perhaps that is not surprising when we think about how the royalty really like to have themselves a good banquet. Haman is falsely accused of attacking Esther, and that accusation is part of Haman being finally brought down; Yosef is falsely accused of attacking Potiphar's wife, and that is the route for Yosef to come up to the positive attention of the Pharaoh, through the people he meets this week in jail.

The similarity between Yosef and Esther, which many many other people have noticed before me, came to my attention because both of them are described in almost the same Hebrew phrase, "y'fe toar v'yifeh mareh" [Gen 39:6] -- Yosef was nicely shaped and nice to look at -- and "y'fat to'ar v'tovat mareh" [Ester 2:7], Ester was nicely shaped and good to look at. Yosef's own mother Rachel is also described as being "y'fat to'ar v'yifat mareh," [Gen 29:17] the exact feminine equivalent of how Yosef is described, so it runs in the family.

But for Yosef and Esther, their attractiveness is really central, because they both rise to power and influence primarily because of charm. Their fates are almost entirely dependent on their charisma, and on traits that are somewhat external, not on their own agency as people. They are both somewhat lacking in visible heroism, and yet they have crucial importance in their historical moment -- so that it seems like they were mostly just pretty to look at, and in the right place at the right time.

It's not that Yosef is not special. He's certainly very visibly his father's favorite, tragically so, since his father's unhealthy favoritism dooms Yosef to being hated in the family. Yosef also does have a gift for reading dreams, but it's a talent that is primarily a passive one, where he has dream intuitions given to him without his needing to think anything out. And he will guide Egypt and its surrounding nations through a famine, but again, only because he's good at the world of dreams.

His passive type of heroism stands in sharp contrast to the life of Avraham, for example, who was so energetic about intervening with Hashem on behalf of others that their relationship was more like a partnership. Whereas Yosef is a receiver, a well of dreams, not a masterfully strong dialoguer with Hashem -- in fact, we never see Yosef speak directly to Hashem or vice versa. Yosef also has some pretty unheroic traits. As a 17-year-old, when he has self-important dreams, he very unwisely shares with his entire family; he tattle-tales to his father about his brothers, though that's something Yaakov sets him up for; he seems entitled, preoccupied with his own specialness. And in his long deception of his brothers later in Egypt where he hides his identity from them, his toying with them can start to seem pretty cruel. I don't always find it easy to like Yosef, or see too much to admire in him.

Esther, of course, is also fairly passive as a heroine, sitting and waiting passively to be chosen to be queen, since marrying well was the traditional maximum of a women's power. But even her daring to approach the king unbidden, when it was so dangerous for her, seems more active and powerful than I associate with Yosef. It is true that Yosef was able to oversee agricultural distribution whereas Esther merely manages to reveal her Jewishness to Achashverosh and ask for his mercy. But given the constraints that gender placed on Esther, her bravery strikes me as more impressive than his.

And yet, G-d very directly and personally intervenes on Yosef's behalf. We hear several times in this parsha that Hashem was with Yosef in everything he did, raised Yosef in people's estimation, made him successful at everything he touched. [Gen 39:3, 39:21, 39:23] G-d watches over Yosef very protectively and looks after him in detail.

And on the other hand, in the book of Esther, there is famously no mention at all of G-d. G-d's face is completely hidden in that story. Even when Esther says she wants the community's support for her approach to the king, she simply asks them to fast; she doesn't say anything about G-d or about prayer. [Esther 4:16]

So does G-d love Yosef more than Ester? It's hard for me to see that. In fact, without Hashem visibly smoothing Ester's path, she seems bolder and stronger to me. I feel like she's going it alone, at least on the surface, and Yosef's just coasting while Hashem does the work. I'm sure it's my own modern bias that makes individualism seem like a strength.

But I also read a few clues in the story about Yosef not being the most heroic figure. We don't include Yosef when we talk about our Avot, our fathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and that could be for a reason. He always seems to be leaving his coat in people's hands, leaving people to think about his wonderful appearance and his coat of many colors and what his exterior means to them. It really troubles me that he never tries to get word to Yaakov after he becomes a distinguished person in Egypt. Why wouldn't he try to reassure his father that he's all right? And why does he play such a long game of cat and mouse with his brothers? I even find it possibly a hint of ridicule about Yosef that his attractiveness is such a matter of import, and that in the next parsha in Pharaoh's dream, the seven cows that represent the seven years of prosperity before the famine are also described as "y'fot mareh" [Gen 41:2] just like Yosef -- y'fot mareh, handsome, good to look at. Even a cow can be good-looking.

So what is it about Yosef that would draw G-d to take so much more trouble with him than with Ester, arranging his life personally for him? It's hard for me to find intrinsic traits about Yosef to answer that question, but we can find an answer earlier in Genesis 15:13, where Hashem tells Avraham that his descendants will be enslaved and oppressed in a strange land before they can finally go free with great wealth and glory. Yosef is the instrument of that prophecy -- without his gathering his family into Egypt, there can be no enslavement and no Exodus to liberation. Yosef is the most important negative catalyst of our major liberation event as a people. His might not really be the most laudable or wonderful part. He sets our people up for terrible suffering, with his charismatic personality the only thing that stands between us and the harshness of Egyptian mistrust and hatred. As soon as a new Pharaoh arises that doesn't know Yosef, the Jews will be hated in Egypt. Perhaps a different leader could have thought more strategically about our place in Egyptian society, and yet it had to unfold this way for us to be poised for Exodus and redemption.

We talk every year at Purim about how G-d's unseen hand can really be found in all stories, at all moments, always moving the plot along for us. In this early part of Joseph's story, G-d's hand is everywhere and is moving Joseph along like a chess piece. I feel jealous of Yosef, the way his brothers and so many others felt jealous of him, the beloved son of his father's favorite wife. He had such direct and personal experience of divine presence, and in our modern time all we can have is a glimpse here and there, a flash of light in the darkness, like the chanukiot we will be lighting.

Even Ester, who seems so deserving of divine attention, and maybe even a little more deserving at times than Yosef in my view, is never mentioned as having had G-d appear in her life. We don't even know whether she prays or what sustains her. And the silence from G-d in the Ester story, along with G-d's very explicit presence in Yosef's world, underscores for me the possibility that G-d, however we define G-d, can be with us and support us at every moment, in every need and in every time, without our ever knowing it. Perhaps we don't even need to be superhumanly deserving for G-d to love us and have special plans for our lives. We can be petty, flawed, coasting on our good luck, maybe even mean. Does that make G-d love us any less, and can we interpret G-d's silence with us as any less love? We as human beings love children for their own sake, not because they are productive or because of their merits. And likewise G-d might just love us for our being, not for what we do, and might be with us in grieving silence when we need comfort. It might not have to be from inherent merit that Yosef has G-d's love and is destined to become the instrument of G-d's salvation. The Yosef and Esther stories, taken together, make the statement that G-d can work equally well whether in a spotlight, or hidden away in a little tiny candle.

G-d says to us in these stories, as Walt Whitman writes in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry": Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

A Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah sameach to you. May you find Hashem's light somewhere in your life, if only in the glowing of little flames.

--Shifra Pride Raffel

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