Emanuel Synagogue

Parasha Vayeshev

The story of Jacob and his children continues to resonate throughout the generations. Even though literature is a product of its time, addressing the particular needs and unique concerns of the individuals and societies in which their authors live, the stories that remain with us are those that are timeless. They speak to the human condition and address our palette of emotions, from our tendency to be greedy, jealous and violent to our capacity for compassion, altruism and love. 

Jacob is a complicated man; his life was full of intrigue, deceit, and favouritism but he also had a capacity for deep love. Interestingly, after his wrestling with the Angel and surviving, despite his name change from Jacob to Israel he does not become an enlightened being like the Buddha, Jesus or a revered spiritual teacher. He continues to act in ways that cause grief and tension among his children as we see in this week’s parsha. The Torah is not trying to deify our heroes; rather it teaches us that we are never a ‘finished product.’ To be human is to be imperfect.

Joseph was Jacob’s first son from Rachel whom he loved deeply. Sadly, it was clear to his other children that Joseph was his favourite. Now we could suspend further inquiry at this point in the story, we could close the book here and see this as an example of the Biblical authors use of foreshadowing, a literary device used to hint at things to come. However, the stories in the Bible are powerful for us because they so clearly and poetically describe the human condition. If we were to only read the Bible from a theological, socio-political or literary lens we would not be doing justice to its deep psychological insights into the complex nature of being human. 

The Joseph saga, like the Jacob epic, teaches us about the transformation – through enforced periods of loneliness, suffering and displacement – of a gifted but egocentric and privileged child into a mature human being who understood that a person’s potential can only be truly realised in the context of service both to the Source of all Being and to Humanity.

The journey that Joseph embarks on is one that all of us must go through in life. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, in an article on this week’s torah portion, cites a famous midrash that states “a single life is like a universe; change a life and you begin to change a universe” (Midrash Tanhumah, Vayeshev,13). Though this is traditionally interpreted as being of service to someone else, the same principle may be applied to the work each of us must do on our own midot (character traits). In a few weeks we are going to read and hear Moses tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go in order that that they may serve Me (God)” (Exodus 5:1). That is the true meaning of freedom in our tradition. To be human is to be imperfect. However, we are endowed with the inherent capacity to find true purpose in life and to use that hard earned wisdom to be of service to a cause greater than our own self-aggrandising agendas. Joseph made this personal great leap forward and in so doing has shown us the power and potential of what it means to be truly human: a human being in the image and likeness of the Source of all Life.  

Shabbat Mevorchim Chodesh Tevet,
Rabbi George Mordecai