D’var Torah: Arnold Zar-Kessler (Vayeshev)

Rabbi Elie Munk notes that the “Joseph story”, which beings in this week’s portion, parashat Va-ye-shev, “…is of incomparable pedagogical value.  It deals with the profound thoughts in a way so simple and direct that they are accessible to every child.  And so this episode is of prime importance for the religious and moral education of the child.”

As a school – and as a community – so fully invested in the religious and moral education of children, we might want to ponder what there is about this narrative within Torah that makes it more special, more significant for our work than others.

Certainly, we know Joseph narrative – the favored son, rejected and abandoned by his brothers only to rise to be a great leader in Egypt.  Through a remarkable set of events, Joseph comes to hold the fate of his brothers in his hands without them knowing his true identity.  Upon hearing their regret for the way they treated him, Joseph reveals himself, forgives them, and the family is reunited.  It is a story that takes up more space  in the Torah – nine chapters – than other episode, or story about a single character.

Besides being the stuff of  “culture” (symphonies, contemporary Broadways musicals, early 20th century literature, such as Thomas Mann and even Disney) the Joseph story has been embraced by the other Abrahamic religions.  For many centuries, in Christian theology, the Joseph story was seen as something of a precursor to the story of Christ – rejected and abandoned only to rise and ultimately forgive.

In Islamic tradition, an entire chapter of the Koran is devoted to Joseph (Yusuf); the only instance in which an entire chapter is devoted to a complete story of a prophet.

Yet for us, we can get caught up in the dynamics of the relationships, the nuances of the language, and – perhaps because of our close connection to the Torah being divided into weekly installments – might miss the larger picture this story is teaching us.

Munk teaches that the unique character of the Joseph story results from the fact  that it is dominated by the certainty of  God, the omnipresent Divine Providence, Whose purposes are achieved in the midst of the interplay of human interests.  Indeed, we commonly teach children that they cannot find the direct intervention of God in this story, as we can with literally every other story in prior generations in Genesis.  It is only through Joseph’s realization of God’s hand in his life is the story placed in that religious context

Bound up in the story – but seldom directly alluded to – are the essential themes of duty, sin and expiation, the conflict between our desires and our conscience, and family strife.  It is these everyday, common – human – components that make the ultimate triumph of moral and spiritual values so profoundly rewarding and so much of what we hope our children will recognize and embrace.

While the Joseph episode that begins here is situated in Genesis, its lessons are every bit as valid for Biblical history as a whole, reminding us that the Divine message and the great lessons of duty are taught to people (and perhaps especially to children) not by means of abstract formulae, but with the help of living examples of human beings who, like ourselves, feel and give in and sin, and yet even when they do stray they remain aware of the unique path of truth and rise up again.  So may it be with us.

The story of Joseph, his brothers, their conflict and reconciliation remind us that people really and truly can change, that families that were torn asunder can be made whole, that even our most profound losses can be remedied, and that God – while invisible – can be the force for that change, for that good if only we let Him in and recognize Him.

And, thus, Rabbi Munk is right – Joseph is not only a story that we want every Jewish child to learn, it is worth repeating every year – perhaps especially this one.  We are blessed to be reminded of this story of real-life hope that we can learn from, for our children and God willing, for ourselves, as well.


Arnold Zar-Kessler, Interim Head of School Adelson Education Campus, Former Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent