Vayeshev: Appearances Can Be Distracting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

Dear Friends: As of December 1, I’m on sabbatical, and traveling around a bit.
I promise you, I will do the best I can to produce some Torah commentary
every week, and when I get to Israel, I hope to use this list for some travel
reporting, too. However, don’t be surprised if the Torah commentaries get sent
out on different days of the week- when I travel I’ll have internet access, but
not at all times. You can still reach me at the email address above, which is
getting forwarded to a portable account.

Better yet, tell your friends to sign up- we’re growing fast!

With that disclaimer, here’s Vayeshev:

Vayeshev begins with a mention of Ya’akov, but from this portion on, the book
of Genesis is really more concerned with Ya’akov’s favorite son Yosef.
Ya’akov’s other sons certainly know that Yosef is the favorite son of the
favorite wife (remember, Ya’akov had two wives and two concubines, who
bore him 12 sons and a daughter), which causes them to be greatly resentful.
So much so that they throw Yosef in a pit, sell him into slavery, and report to
their father that his youngest son is dead.

While it’s never so nice to blame the victim, it’s also true that Yosef seems
arrogant and immature when we first meet him as a young man. He “tattle-
tales” on his brothers and wears the special coat his father gives him,
seemingly oblivious to the feelings which arise in his siblings. In fact, the
Torah gives us a strong hint of Yosef’s self-centeredness:

“These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old,
being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad .
. . . ” [Genesis 37: 2]

Notice something here? If we’re told that Yosef is 17 years old, we shouldn’t
need to be told he was a “lad” [or “young man’]. Aren’t all 17 year-olds “young
men?” Our teacher Rashi explains that “he was a lad” refers to Yosef’s
behavior, which was “young” or childish. More specifically, Rashi quotes an
earlier midrash [ancient Bible commentary] to the effect that Yosef spent a lot
of time on his hair and his eyes, making them handsome and stylish.

Thus, “he was a lad” refers not just to Yosef’s age, but to his maturity, and
what’s interesting to me is that Rashi and the earlier books equate Yosef’s
lack of maturity with an excessive concern for physical appearance. This
might be especially true given the context of the verse, which tells us that
Yosef was out helping his older brothers in the fields- in other words, he’s
supposed to be working, but instead he’s more concerned about his haircut
than his father’s animals !

However, I don’t think Rashi was primarily concerned with Yosef’s work
habits, whatever they were. Rather, I think Rashi is linking Yosef’s disregard
for the feelings of others to his vanity and focus on externalities. To put it
another way, somebody who’s mostly worried about his appearance may not
be paying attention to vastly more important matters, such as the wounded
emotions and built-up resentments all around him.

While there’s nothing wrong with being presentable,* and it’s certainly
considered good manners to dress respectfully for synagogue and other
important occasions, it’s also true that excessive concern for appearance can
distract a person from the more urgent and significant tasks of living. In
Judaism, clothes do not make the man- in the realm of religious values, a
person’s sensitivity counts for far more than his or her style. Immaturity, in
Yosef’s case, is focussing on something temporary and faddish, to the extent
that it harms the enduring bonds of emotional covenant which Judaism holds
out as the highest possibility of a mature and thoughtful spirit.

On that note, it’s interesting to contrast Yosef as a “lad” of 17 with the Yosef
who is the “Prime Minister” of Pharaohs Egypt. In chapter 45, which takes
place years after Yosef is separated from his brothers, he is reunited and
reconciled with them, in a reunion marked by tears and embracing. At this
later point in his life, Yosef is more concerned with emotional reality than
self-
composure, and weeps openly when he is finally able to reveal his identity to
his long-lost family.

As a young man, concerned with childish things, Yosef spent his time fixing
up his eyes to fit himself to the latest styles; as a mature man who has seen
tragedy, loneliness, temptation and vindication, Yosef is willing to let the
tears
flow freely, to show his truest and deepest self to his newly reconciled
brothers. Yosef’s emotional freedom seems to come at the expense of his
vanity and self-consciousness, and perhaps we can see his tears of
reconciliation as the reward of maturity and a deeper perspective.

*All comments about my neckwear and shoe selections will be dutifully
ignored.

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