Vayeshev – Nature or Nurture?

5 Joseph dreamed a dream, told it to his brothers that caused them to hate him even more. 6 He said to them: listen please; this is the dream that I have dreamed.  7 And here we are gathering up sheaves in the field and there my sheave arises and stands up; and then your sheaves surround my sheave, bowing. 8 They said to him: brother, will you rule over us…

Genesis 37

We can still hear his brother’s yelling at Joseph: “Stuck up, spoiled brat – SHUT UP! When will you grow up?” “No one wants to hear a smart ass like you pontificate.” “Kids like you should be seen and definitely NOT heard.” “Spoiled and pampered – you just don’t get it do you?” “Your words are annoying and your arrogance pathetic.”

9 He dreamed another dream, told it to his brothers; he said: there in the other dream I have dreamed, was sun and the moon and the other eleven stars that bowed down to me. 10 He told it to his father and to his brothers; his father reprimanded him, he said to him: what is this dream you have dreamed? Will we all come, myself, your mother and brothers to bow down to you, to the ground? 11 His brothers were envious of him and his father was aware of this.

Genesis 37

Naïve child, you are like a rose with thorns. People may admire you, but sometimes come away scratched and bleeding despite your allure.

Who was responsible for such a person/character? Who molded his personality and made him a braggart and then a clever, brilliant man? Who was most influential? Father? Jacob treated him differently than everyone else, because that is what he saw growing up. Mother? Rachel had waited so long for him to be born but didn’t get to raise him. Brothers? Older half-brothers don’t usually care about their intrusive younger siblings.

Nature or nurture is somehow an unanswerable conundrum.  He was left to his own devices to explore the world and navigate complex family relations.

22 Reuven said to them: do not spill blood – throw him into a pit in the desert, but do not harm him, so that he could save him from their hands to return him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his cloak, the multicolored cloak he had on him. 24 They took him and threw him into an empty pit without water.

Genesis 37

That time spent in a dark pit reshaped his life from the moment he was thrust into it. Joseph waited until he was found, fearful and alone in the darkness without his favorite cloak to keep him warm or his father to protect him.

28 Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph out of the pit; they sold Joseph to Ishmaelites for twenty silver coins; they brought Joseph to Egypt.

Genesis 37

But he wasn’t given his cloak nor did he see any way to return to his life. He had been lifted out of darkness but the light of day only brought more confusion. Would his past prepare him for the future? Would his bravado help him when he himself was a slave in Egypt?

6 For I am poor and needy, God take pity on me: help me for my refuge is in you. YHWH do not delay.

Psalms 70

20  Joseph’s master took and gave him to the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were; there he was imprisoned. 

Genesis 39

Later in Egypt when Joseph was confined unjustly to a prison cell far away from all of them, he had so much time to contemplate his life or his death. Days and nights of confinement passed without any sense made from living. Was he truly part of the dregs of society, abandoned to squalor and restricted prison cells.

66 For your life hanging in front of you; and you were afraid night and day, so you will not believe in your life.

Deuteronomy 28
Hanging mobile
Hanging – Red mobile Calder

23 And the cup-bearer did not remember Joseph, he forgot him.

Genesis 40

Would that time teach him to be more modest in his demands and his assertions? Could he ever stop dreaming?

More to come in Parashat Miketz…

Midrash Harabah and English translations by Rabbi Gail Shuster-Bouskila ©2021