Understanding Joseph

Understanding Joseph

Rabbi Aaron Bisno
Rabbi Aaron Bisno

Parshat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26

According to a recently published survey from a company called School Stickers, and as reported by the internet-media company Buzzfeed, the Top 10 most common names for badly behaved boys is in, and the name Joseph tops the list. This newsworthy (at least, Internet-news-worthy) finding is based on the company’s tracking 60,000 children and collecting and analyzing more than a million pieces of data.

 Now, I’m not suggesting that such a claim is, in fact, news or even that it has merit, but it is curious; and surely, such a thing would be news to anyone who has been following our Torah readings these past few weeks. After all, as we prepare, this Shabbat, to conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis, so do we conclude the Torah’s Joseph novella.

 Occupying nearly a third of this first book of the Torah, the novella that is the story of Joseph’s life is a tale that, in many ways, serves as a vital link between the patriarchs Abraham (Joseph’s great-grandfather), Isaac (Joseph’s grandfather), his own father Jacob and all subsequent generations of Jews who will follow Joseph’s generation in Egypt (not the least of whom are the Hebrew slaves Moses will lead out of slavery and in the direction of the Promised Land and who will take Joseph’s bones out of Egypt with them).

But more than this, the drama of Joseph is that of a mythic hero to the Jewish people. Indeed, Joseph is a man who serves as a shining example of the process of maturing from being a self-important teenager to becoming a selfless and upright moral leader. The biblical Joseph, while flawed and human in character, was hardly one whose name was synonymous with those most likely to headline a naughty list. Quite the contrary.

Indeed, Joseph’s move from a self-absorbed hubristic young man to a self-actualized and wise humanitarian is one of the Torah’s best-known, best-loved and most emblematic stories of faith development. When he was a younger man, Joseph believed in himself; as a mature man who has been tested by life’s trials, Joseph matures into one who more fully appreciates the ways God moves behind and within the vicissitudes of history.

So it is at the end of his life, Joseph reassures his brothers, telling them: “Although you had intended me harm, God intended it for good.” And with his faith in the unlimited potential of the Holy One cemented, the man who had earlier languished in a prison cell after having been sold into slavery, declares to all who survive him,” God will [one day] take notice of you, bringing you from this place to the Land that has been promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” 

In this way, Joseph — looking back over the breadth of his days — moved from the self-satisfaction of youth to a growing self-understanding that truly allowed him to make and enhance his name, which makes sense, after all. You see, in Hebrew, Joseph means “God will increase; God will make great.”

Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno is the senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.