Yosef: A Light in the Darkness

Vayeshev | Hanukkah By :  Eitan Fishbane Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Dec 8, 2017 / 5778 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Parashat Vayeshev takes us deep into the pain and alienation of being human, of yearning from a low place of darkness and suffering. And yet the narrative also conveys the power of hope—a longing for God and redemption, for spiritual and moral healing in our human relationships.

This week’s parashah crystallizes the dysfunctional family dynamics that are evident throughout the book of Genesis—the fraught father-son relationships, the painful intergenerational wounds of favoritism, the anger and resentment between siblings, and, deep down, the simple desire to be loved. Although we may cringe at the violence of the brothers toward Yosef, the narrative of Vayeshev also opens our hearts to the pain these sons felt at their father’s rejection—his greatest love reserved for Yosef:   וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו (“Yisrael [i.e., Ya’akov] loved Yosef most of all his sons”) (Gen. 37:3). 

The wound of this rejection, the longing to be loved, is further represented by the motif of the garment, the beged, in its various forms—most powerfully perhaps in the ketonet pasim, the coat of colors that Yosef wears. That is the site of the brothers’ grief-inducing dissimulation as they present their favored brother’s blood-stained cloak to their father, tricking him into the conclusion that his son has been killed and devoured by a wild animal: וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ טָרֹף טֹרַף יוֹסֵף (“He [Ya’akov] said: ‘It is my son’s cloak; a wild animal has eaten him! Yosef has been torn apart!’”) (37:33). The garment is the instrument of deception (begidah) elsewhere in the parashah as well—in the veil of Tamar (which she uses to disguise herself in seducing Yehudah, 38:14–19), in the clothing of Yosef in the lying hands of Potiphar’s wife, left behind in his flight from her advances (39:11–18). Beged and begidah, garment and deception.

In symmetry, the garments of both Ya’akov and Reuven are highlighted in the dramatic expression of grief, the tearing of clothing as a gesture of mourning. In the case of Reuven, we may also observe the portrayal of compassion—he returns to the pit, planning to rescue his brother who, alas, has already been sold by the others into slavery: וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל הַבּוֹר וְהִנֵּה אֵין יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר וַיִּקְרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו (“Reuven returned to the pit, and behold Yosef was not in the pit, and he ripped his garments”) (Gen. 37:29). Reuven’s return, וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן, communicates the ideal of compassion; metaphorically, we may read it as the need to enter the place of the empty pit in the world, to lift up those among us who may have fallen into the dark places of suffering and hopelessness.

Yosef’s absence both underscores Reuven’s despair at his failed attempt to save his brother, and, at a more figurative level of meaning, may be said to symbolize the parched and empty sense of spiritual alienation—the thirst felt in the absence of the living waters of Divinity. Yosef’s name is thus read creatively as an allusion to the overflow of divine abundance (hosafah/Yosef); the surplus of Divine Presence and vitality is the “Yosef-dimension” of existence, whereas the pit empty of water represents a state of being in which the life-giving energies of God are absent—leaving the human being in a disoriented condition of extreme spiritual thirst. As it was said a few verses earlier, when Yosef was first cast into the pit: וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם (“The pit was empty, it contained no water”) (v. 24).

If Vayeshev teaches us profound lessons about the fragility of love, about family, deception, and vulnerability, it also may be read (as it has been by generations of spiritual masters) as wisdom about the soul’s yearning for Divine Presence, about the intersecting threads of hardship, struggle, and the devotional quest. The figure of Yosef may be understood as a paradigm for the cry of prayer, the wail from the depths of suffering, of being lost in the world; Yosef represents the struggle to rise from the sunken place of despair, the dark place of Mitzrayim (Egypt)both as a struggle through adversity, but also as the life-process of redeeming hidden divine light from even the most coarse and constraining elements of materiality and mundane existence. The pit into which Yosef is cast by his jealous brothers is akin in this reading to the painful and narrow place of Egypt, the metzarim of Mitzrayim. וַיַּעֲלֵנִי מִבּוֹר שָׁאוֹן (“He lifted me out of the miry pit”), sings the Psalmist (Ps. 40:3). It is that same hope expressed in this Psalm (‘קַוֹּה קִוִּיתִי ה [“I put my hope in YHVH] [v. 2]) that is embodied in the figure of Yosef.

According to Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, a late eighteenth-century Hasidic master, this was the reason the Torah speaks about Yosef’s descent into Egypt. It is to teach us that in creating the world, God placed a luminous divine spark—a portion of the transcendent Divine essence, חלק א-לוהי ממעל, into the darkness of matter, into the seemingly profane realms of ordinary existence. Here too we observe a play on the name of Yosef: an extra abundance of light is drawn from the darkness of materiality, and the figure of Yosef represents an addition, tosefet (Yosef/hosafah/tosefet)—an extra measure of divine light that may bring the promise of redemption, illuminating the eyes and opening the heart to God. The primordial light was hidden within the darkness so that we too might find our way back to Divinity even when we feel we are in the darkest of places. Like the traces of a pathway out of the woods, the fragments of divine light may lead us from the forest of darkness—that we are lost, and yet may be found once again.

Thus are the lessons of Vayeshev and Hanukkah intertwined: in these, the darkest hours of the year, the flames are lit to remind us of the wonder and beauty that is still possible, the hope that may warm us even on the coldest and most bleak of winter nights—of the divine נסים ונפלאות, the miracles and wonders that may yet lie hidden. It is a time of התחדשות, of renewal, of not letting our spiritual vitality become stale and uninspired. Let us instead strive to be always like Yosef, the youth (נער), which the late nineteenth-century Sefat Emet reads as representing the energy of התעוררות, awakening—an interpretive play on the similar sounds of these two Hebrew words.

In all the passing moments that have the potential to fall into the pit of routine, boredom, and superficiality, may we be blessed with the sparkle of childhood wonder, with an awareness of Creation renewed. Spirit of the world, open our hearts to hope and to gratitude for our many blessings; fill us with the passion to be ever-awake to the sacred mystery and sublime gift of this all-too-fleeting human life.

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