Are we supposed to like Joseph? Are we supposed to find him endearing?
Are we supposed to cheer for him as the story progresses? Because, honestly, I find it hard.
He is the protagonist for more than half of the Book of Genesis. Other than Moses, nobody in the Torah gets as much airtime as Joseph. So you would think that the hero of our story would be a bit more, well, heroic. Instead, in this week’s parashah, Joseph comes across as pretty conceited.
It is one thing that his father made him a colourful coat to show Joseph that he was the favourite. He can’t help that. Such blatant favouritism is probably bad parenting on Jacob’s part. It’s not something that Joseph had any control over. But did he have to wear the coat? Did he have to wear it all the time?
The very first thing we hear about Joseph is that he snitches on his brothers to Jacob. He follows them around while they’re working and then runs back to their dad to tell on them. When we hear that Joseph’s brothers wouldn’t talk to him, we can hardly be surprised. What did he think would happen?
And then he has his dreams. He tells his brothers that they were harvesting wheat in the fields, when his sheath stood upright, and theirs all bowed down to his. ‘What could it possibly mean?’, he asks them? Perhaps, Joseph, it means some dreams are better kept inside your head.
Then he has another dream, where he is the shiniest star in the sky, and all the other stars, plus the sun and the moon, all bow down to him. Jacob wastes no time picking up the suggestion that not only are his brothers bowing down to him, but that his mother and father are prostrating themselves too.
Honestly, I know we know how the story ends, and yes it all turns out OK, but it really is hard to sympathise with him. I’m not saying he deserved to be sold into slavery. Nobody deserves that. It was definitely an overreaction on the part of his brothers. I’m just saying that he didn’t really make life easy for himself.
And does he even change? His brothers go on a sincere journey of self-discovery. They learn to feel remorse, to repent, and not to make the same mistakes again. That’s why, when Joseph sets up a test at the climax of the story to see whether his brothers will stand up for Benjamin, they do. Judah even volunteers himself as a slave to defend Benjamin. The brothers learned their lessons.
What does Joseph learn? He endures slavery, false accusations and imprisonment. But in the end he becomes vizier for all of Egypt. And, having reconciled with his brothers, he reassures them that this must have been God’s plan all along. Joseph started out the story believing that he was destined for greatness, and ended it by finding out he was right.
What is the moral lesson we are supposed to gain from Joseph, then? Or, rather, what could Joseph have done differently that I might give a more favourable sermon on him?
The answer, I think, comes from a man who was very similar to Joseph, and yet separated from him by many thousands of years: Oscar Wilde. Like Joseph, Wilde was a youngest brother. Like Joseph, he wrongly spent a long stint in prison. Wilde even had a multi-coloured coat. While other Victorian gentlemen wore drab black suits, Oscar Wilde pioneered the aesthetic movement with purple velvet outfits, colourful corsages and impressive top hats. Most importantly, like Joseph, Oscar Wilde was an individual. He was different, and he knew it.
What differentiated Wilde from Joseph was that Wilde had a much better analysis of his situation. Wilde knew that he was an individual, and he did not try to change that. But he also knew that the hostility to his individualism came from inequality.
In 1891, inspired by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde wrote his only major political work, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. In it, he rails against the reality that individual expression, through art, poetry and philosophy, is only the preserve of a privileged few, while the poor are required to toil in repetitive drudgery. This inequality, he argues, means that most people never access their individualism, and so despise those who are privileged enough to be able. In a startling polemic, he calls for the abolition of private property altogether.
I think his analysis is really correct. We know that groups need individuals. But it is equally true that the individual needs the group. Human beings are pack animals, and we need to find some collective expression if we are to have any chance of standing out as individuals.
Perhaps, then, Joseph wasn’t so bad. He was a product of his circumstances. Had Jacob treated all the brothers with equal love and nurtured what was special in all of them, there might not have been such a need for bitterness and jealousy. Joseph may have been able to dream his dreams in a position of humility, and fulfil his destiny without infuriating everybody else. Granted, it wouldn’t have made such a good story, but I’m not aiming for good literary tension here.
And yet what we have really is a good story. Part of the reason why I find Joseph so objectionable is because I find him so relatable. I know I am prone to all the same behaviours for which I have criticised Joseph. I know that I can just as easily bluster my way through life and try to stand out. The Torah tells us this story because it is telling us something honest about ourselves.
And yet Oscar Wilde is also right. The problem is not that one person should want to express themselves, but that not everyone should feel able. As Liberal Jews, we prize the individual and we give great value to people’s personal expression.
As a community, Harrow is now in the process of deciding who to recruit as your new rabbi. Like every community in a similar position, you are faced with an impossible task. You will want to find someone who is energetic, but experienced. Traditional but innovative. And, as in the protagonists of this story, individual but able to be part of a collective.
Often conversations about this focus on who the individual should be and what they should do. The truth, as we learn from this story, is that it’s never just about one person. It’s about the culture we build as a community. It’s about how people work and grow together.
Let us not only ask that everyone feel able to live their own Jewish journey, but go further and ask how we collectively empower each other to journey together.
I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayeishev on Saturday 21st December at Harrow Mosaic Liberal.