Jealousy As a Test of Virtue

Vayiggash By :  Daniel Nevins Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Dec 14, 2007 / 5768 | Torah Commentary | Social Justice
“And Joseph gave the [brothers] wagons, as Pharaoh had ordered, and he gave them supplies for the journey. To all of them, each one, he gave changes of garments, and to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of garments.” (Gen. 45:21-22, translation by Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

Gifts can make you crazy. Picking them is hard, and so is accepting them with grace. Gifts give pleasure, no doubt, but they also cause great jealousy. The problematic nature of gift giving is a key lesson of the Joseph story. If only Jacob could have found a more subtle way to show Joseph his love! That silly cloak caused decades of suffering.

Sitting in jail, Joseph must have reached the same conclusion. Starting out in his magnificent cloak he wound up stripped bare—shamed, beaten, threatened, and enslaved. In hindsight, was his tunic a gift or a curse? Joseph is an astute interpreter of dreams and a social engineer. Surely he can comprehend jealousy!

Thus, you have to wonder about Joseph’s subsequent behavior. When he finally reveals himself after Judah’s heart-rending soliloquy this week, Joseph demonstrates his forgiving and generous nature by giving gifts to his brothers. He picks out nice outfits for each of them, reminding them none-too-subtly of the clothes they had ripped off of him. Blatantly, he favors Benjamin with extra clothes—five sets instead of the single suits the other brothers received. What is Joseph playing at?

The rabbis are alarmed by his conduct. In the Talmudic tractate Megilah 16b, they ask, “How could the very same thing that caused this righteous man [i.e., Joseph] to be tormented now trip him up?” Joseph had suffered as a result of his father’s favoritism. Won’t the brothers now direct their jealousy at Benjamin and attack him? It seems crazy for Joseph to repeat the same dynamic.

The Talmudic commentator Maharsha (R. Samuel Eliezer Edels) says that the fact that Benjamin was his full brother would not suffice to blunt the other brothers’ jealousy. They would attribute the differential in gifts to Joseph’s anger at their betrayal of him. Isn’t it enough that Joseph also gives Benjamin 300 silver coins? At least that gift is hidden in his pocket. But these fancy clothes will remind everyone who sees them of the brothers’ shameful conduct. Some gift!

The rabbis insist on finding a noble explanation for Joseph’s behavior. According to the Talmudic Rabbi Binyamin bar Yafet, the five sets of clothes that Joseph gives Benjamin are actually a hint of the five garments that will be worn by his distant descendant Mordecai, who is identified in the scroll of Esther as “ish yemini” or a Benjaminite. But even if we accept this imaginative explanation (note this rabbi’s first name!), it doesn’t really answer the original question. Whatever his motive, Joseph must know that the brothers will be jealous of Benjamin’s extravagant wardrobe.

Rabbeinu Bachya has an even more imaginative answer. The half-brothers “owe” Joseph for selling him into slavery. Thus Joseph simply deducts the value of their fine from his gift. Benjamin was not involved in that betrayal, so he received the gift’s full value. Fair is fair, and no hard feelings. This solution might (with great latitude) make some accounting sense, but it ignores the Talmud’s psychological concern. By giving Benjamin five sets of clothes, Joseph is provoking his half brothers to more jealousy. How can he do this to them, to Benjamin, and to his father?

I think that Joseph knows exactly what he is doing. His is a kind of behavior that Israelis call “davka.” We don’t have a great English word for this, but I’ll call it “in your face.” He is still testing (tormenting?) his brothers. When Judah offers to take Benjamin’s place in prison, he demonstrates repentance. But what about the other brothers? Have they learned to control their jealousy, or will they once again fall into a murderous jealous rage over some fancy threads? Like a dog trainer holding up a treat but ordering the dog to sit, Joseph is tempting his brothers, watching to see if they have learned self-control.

What do you think of Joseph’s conduct? Is he being vengeful or wise? Is he showing love for Benjamin or using him as a hapless pawn? I am afraid that Joseph seems like an analyst who views patients as fascinating puzzles rather than showing them love. He is acting davka—in opposition to human nature.

Rather than understanding jealousy and seeking to minimize its impact, Joseph uses jealousy as a test of virtue. This dynamic worsens at the parashah’s close when Joseph favors his family with choice land in Goshen but manipulates the Egyptian farmers into serfdom. This favoritism comes back to bite the Israelites as the Egyptians will soon strip them of their fancy garments and toss them into a new pit of enslavement.

It is no coincidence that the Ten Commandments conclude with the prohibition of coveting. It is exceptionally difficult to purge oneself of jealousy. How many people can succeed in such a trial? We should limit our exposure to jealousy, but should also avoid tempting others.

For this reason it behooves a decent person to avoid conspicuous consumption and blatant displays of favoritism. Such behavior unleashes jealousy in even decent people and can lead to great suffering all around.

American Jews would be wise to learn this lesson. It can be tempting davka to lavish gifts on ourselves rather than reaching out to those who are in urgent need of our assistance. We need an opposite form of davka. The more comfortable we become, the more we should involve ourselves in the needs of the poor. Davka the wealthiest among us should be personally involved in poverty relief. This is not a form of noblesse oblige, but it is a necessity for us to live lives of goodness and tranquility. Only by becoming agents of justice and healing in society can we break the cycle of suffering and jealousy. Only by acting with compassion and fairness can we create a society at peace.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.