In VaYeshev, when we first meet Joseph, he is bringing back ‘evil tales’ דִּבָּתָם רָעָה about his brothers. He is every little kid who ever tattled on older siblings hoping to curry favor with a parent. And worse, he is daddy’s favorite. He makes up fictions about the brothers, Leah’s six sons in particular. According to Rashi, Joseph has them behaving quite sinfully. He accuses them of eating limbs from living animals, treating the other sons as slaves, and having illicit sexual relations. These are falsehoods, Rashi explains (citing verses) because Joseph is himself punished for each of these lies. There is so much resentment that Joseph and his brothers are not even on speaking terms. When Joseph finally does have something to say to his brothers, he shares his rather grandiose dreams. Not exactly the best idea to win friends among his brothers. He is tone deaf and oblivious to the impact he has. Resentment turns to envy and hatred, to the point where even his father notices.
The brothers go off with the flock, and Jacob sends Joseph to bring him back a report. Does this seem like the smartest idea? Send the troublemaker into trouble? In his charge to Joseph, Jacob tells him
“לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר”
“Go now and see the shalom of your brothers, and see the shalom of the flock, and return to me, report.” Not another evil tale dib-ah ra’ah , simply an honest report.
This passage just cries out for midrashic interpretation. On the surface it reads as ‘go see how your brothers are doing and let me know’. Suppose we learn it as “go and see to being at peace with your brothers, just the way the sheep in the flock are at peace with one another, and return to me with a good report”. In other words “return to me reporting that you have repaired your relationship with your brothers”. (Like I said, some midrashic license).
Never. Was. Gonna. Happen.
When Joseph gets to Schechem, his brothers are nowhere to be found. A stranger mysteriously intervenes. He asks Joseph “What are you seeking? (m’vakesh) Joseph replies: “It’s my brothers I am seeking, tell me please, where they are pasturing”. He is not thinking about how they are.
אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ; הַגִּידָה-נָּא לִי, אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים
Joseph is not out seeking shalom with his brothers. He is sporting his coat of many colors, advertising his unearned position as favorite. He is waving the proverbial red flag in front of the bull. What unfolds seems inevitable. In the pit, out of the pit, into Potiphar’s household, down into the pit again. More dreams, and then even when Joseph is hauled out of the pit and raised to Pharoah’s right hand. The Torah here is a story of how dreams do come true. But though Joseph’s dreams play out as interpreted, they ultimately lead to a nightmare for the Jewish people. For all his power and his ascribing success to his G-d, Joseph ends up bringing the nascent nation of Israel down into the slavery of Egypt.
The day has been saved, the family fed, and everything seems to be all right. But from here it will be a straight down hill ride. And when Joseph finally does have his family in front of him, it will be way too late to avoid the sojourn as strangers in Egypt.
How could this nightmare have been avoided? How could it be avoided in our time?
In our day, a great leap of faith is required. In Talmud Brachot we learn that the morning Shema cannot be said until there is sufficient light. One test for this is the ability to distinguish two similar colors from each other, another is to be able to recognize a ‘fellow’ at four paces. Unless we are able to recognize each other as a friend, then we are still living in the darkness.
Joseph and his brothers lived for a long time in the darkness, and only at the end did they come in to the light.
In our time, we need to do better.