"Joseph Maketh Himself Known to His Brethren" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Joseph Maketh Himself Known to His Brethren" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Joseph wins the game of life, even though it takes him a while to wise up

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayigash

Genesis 44:18-47:27


The Rabbi of Chelm looked over the colorful chart his student had presented. “I was expecting a draft of your dvar Torah on your portion, Vayigash. This looks like a board game.”

She replied, “You told me that the Joseph tale is the longest narrative in the Torah, almost a novella. It is 13 chapters long and builds a story bridge from the matriarchs and patriarchs to the arrival of Moses at Sinai.”

“What are those four boxes?”

“The four Torah portions of the Joseph story:

Vayeshev (‘Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.’)
Miketz (‘After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile.’)
Vayigash (‘Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.”’)
Vayechi (‘Jacob lived 17 years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to 147 years.’)”

“If this is a board game,” asked the rabbi, “what do you win?”

“Wisdom! You finally get wise. You grow up. It takes him awhile, like 13 chapters. Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar and Asenath, just a chapter each. Here’s how it goes:

“Joseph rolls the dice and lands in Vayeshev, Chapter 37, and has a dream, and tells his brothers who already hate him for being their father’s favorite.

Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.’

His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams. He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, ‘Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. ‘What,’ he said to him, ‘is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?’ His brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.

“They hated him even more. He was clueless to their feelings. Note to self: Tell your dreams to someone who loves you. (That’s in the Zohar.) He loses a turn, rolls again and lands in Miketz, Chapter 41.

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘In my dream, I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the Nile came up seven sturdy and well-formed cows and grazed in the reed grass. Presently there followed them seven other cows, scrawny, ill-formed, and emaciated — never had I seen their likes for ugliness in all the land of Egypt. And the seven lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, the sturdy ones; but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before. And I awoke. In my other dream, I saw seven ears of grain, full and healthy, growing on a single stalk; but right behind them sprouted seven ears, shriveled, thin, and scorched by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed the seven healthy ears. I have told my magician-priests, but none has an explanation for me.’

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: Pharaoh has been told what God is about to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years; it is the same dream. The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are seven years of famine. It is just as I have told Pharaoh: Pharaoh has been shown what God is about to do. Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. … Let Pharaoh find someone who’s discerning and wise, whom you can set over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities. Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt.’

The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, ‘Could we find another like him — a man with the divine spirit?’ So, Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.’

“He wins and becomes the only Torah player to be called wise.”

“How does he show wisdom?”

“He lands in Vayigash, and in Chapter 45, he does this:

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me.’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.

Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.’

“You see, now Joseph is truly wise.”

“If he has won the wisdom game, what’s in the last box?”

“Vayechi? Bonus points. Joseph keeps his promise to his father Jacob and buries him in the Cave of Machpelah. And then Joseph leaves the game. He dies.”

“Yes,” said the Rabbi of Chelm, “but as he lived, Joseph went beyond dreams, visions and prophecy. As we read in the Talmud and the Zohar, ‘Even as prophecy no longer prevails, the wise are preferable to prophets.’”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].