“Joseph Sold Into Egypt” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Joseph Sold Into Egypt” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Caged? No escape? In Judaism, there is always hope.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1-40:23


The Torah portion Vayeshev represents the beginning of the complicated family drama between Joseph and his brothers. It also serves as the prelude to the Exodus narrative, a story of oppression and redemption that constitutes one of the foundational themes of biblical theology and a core motif in rabbinic Judaism.

The text tells us that Joseph is his father Jacob’s favorite child. He is the son of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who gives birth to Joseph when Jacob is an old man, after years of heartbreak and frustration.

As a sign of his love — and a tactile symbol of his unabashed favoritism — Jacob gives Joseph a ketonet passim, a striped tunic, more famously known as “a coat of many colors” (Genesis 37:3).

What happens next is the stuff of legend, and a Broadway musical. Filled with hateful jealousy, Joseph’s brothers strip the tunic off his body, throw him into a pit and sell him as a slave to passing traders. Eventually Joseph is brought to Egypt, where he is sold to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh. After an incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is thrown into prison.

Joseph’s initial fate is part of a pattern. There are earlier examples of favoritism in the book of Genesis, as well as descriptions of the damaging consequences of such an action. In Genesis 4:3-5, the brothers Cain and Abel each make an offering to God. God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. The result, grounded in resentment and jealousy, is that Cain murders his younger brother.

Another illustration of the destructive effects of favoritism occurs in Genesis 25-27. Isaac and Rebekah have twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger one, is his mother’s favorite, while Esau is his father’s favorite. What follows is family toxicity on a biblical level.

When Isaac is an old man and unable to see clearly, he asks Esau to go out and hunt game for him. He wants Esau to make him his favorite dish, after which he will bless his firstborn son. But while Esau is out hunting, Rebekah directs Jacob to disguise himself as his brother and deceive Isaac, so that he will bless Jacob instead. And that is exactly what happens.

The outcome is inevitable. Esau is filled with bloodlust toward his brother, who flees for his life toward Mesopotamia. Jacob will spend the next 20 years hiding from Esau, struggling and constrained as an indentured servant to his treacherous uncle Laban.

Yet not all is lost for Jacob, nor for Joseph. There is a kabbalistic concept called yeridah lifney ha-aliyah, descent before ascent. For the mystics, a journey into the abyss can be a sacred rite of passage, the furnace through which our destinies are forged.

In the biblical context, Egypt (Mitzrayim in Hebrew) often serves as a metaphor for that descent, and some of the Torah’s greatest heroes pass through it, all by divine design. A famine drives Abraham there, but also sets into motion the birth of the Jewish people. After this week’s Torah portion, Joseph will become a key figure in the royal court and the savior of his family — the next link in the chain of Jewish genealogy to the present day.

The mystics instruct us to read the word Mitzrayim not as the historical Egypt, but as metzarim — the straits of spiritual imprisonment. Whether we, like Joseph, are shackled by a sense of entitlement, or, like Jacob, enslaved by our own fears and inner demons, life can sometimes feel like a cage from which there is no escape.

But we all fall down. Descent is only the preparation for the ascent.

Joseph, who lives out his life in Egyptian exile, has his bones gathered and “taken up” with the Israelites during their exodus from slavery in Egypt to redemption in the Promised Land.

Jacob, both a victim and a perpetrator of favoritism, eventually lifts himself up out of his moral quagmire and reconciles with his brother. In a poignant image, his spiritual journey begins with a setting sun and ends with a rising sun.

Our tradition’s message seems to be clear: There is always hope. Even when all seems lost, even when we feel trapped in a pit of darkness and despair, we are capable of growth, wisdom and ultimate transformation.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley. He is the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City and author or editor of 10 books, including “Gonzo Judaism” and “God at the Edge.”