Parashat Vayeshev: Joseph and Judah Grow Up

Posted on December 9, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

“You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” So said the author Germaine Greer. The Torah’s response might be: grown-ups are never finished growing up.

Parashat Vayeshev kicks off the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. It begins with their father Jacob letting everyone know Joseph is his favorite; a multicolored coat rubs in this fact. Joseph does not help his own case, tattling on his brothers and sharing dreams that speak of his superiority. All these enrage his brothers, who dispose of him by selling him off to an Egypt-bound caravan. 

One lens through which to read the story is that of personal growth and maturity. First, let’s give credit to Joseph for growing up into a respectable man. Remember that the opening scenes speak of him at age 17. Are we ourselves proud of everything we were at 17, still in high school? After he is sent down to Egypt, he grows up. He shows the wisdom of running Potifar’s house and operations. He has the discipline to not give in to Potifar’s wife. He has the kindness to help out two fellow prisoners. He gives credit to G-d rather than himself. He begins speaking of G-d for the first time. People respond to upheaval in very different ways, and to his credit Joseph matures almost overnight. This should have been a song in the musical! 

Second, let’s applaud his brother Judah. Immature adult Judah is the one who suggests selling Joseph down to Egypt in the first place. He does not permit his third son to marry Tamar, effectively prohibiting her from marrying anyone else in the process. But something important occurs when he admits to his later actions with Tamar –  he grows up. In the story’s decisive moment, it looks like younger brother Benjamin will remain in jail in Egypt while everyone else returns to Canaan. But one brother refuses to turn his back, insists that he remain in Benjamin’s place, challenges the second-most important authority in Egypt by basically bellowing “Let my brother go!” It’s Judah. The story of Joseph is the story of Judah too, whom Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Judaism’s first true repentant. 

In this story are a few lessons for us: maturity can happen all at once; emotional growth continues as adults; personal crises can lead to personal growth. As we read the Joseph story again this year, let’s look carefully at character development –  and be inspired to spur our own.