The Words of the Prophets – Haftarah for Parashat Vayeishev

27 November 2010 – Amos 2:6-3:8


An Ethical Take on the Joseph Story

by Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

The narratives of B’reishit are wonderful stories about relationships and behaviour.  Often they reveal a disturbing, shadow-side of the human personality, particularly disturbing as much of the focus is on family life. Parashat Va-yeishev is a perfect case in point.

Jacob has twelve sons – and one favourite: Joseph.  Resentful of Joseph’s favoured status, the other sons sell him into slavery in Egypt.  Ordinary sibling rivalry is transmuted into hatred and revenge that gets uglier and more tragic when, presenting Joseph’s torn and bloodied garment to their father, Jacob’s other sons lead him to believe that Joseph is dead.  Where is the morality in all of this?

So we turn to the haftarah from the prophet Amos, a Judean shepherd who moved to Israel and preached in the 8th century BCE.   He proclaims:  “Thus says the Eternal: for Israel’s three transgressions, and for four, I will not revoke it [judgment]: because they sell the righteous silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”  Amos directed this critique at the wealthy Israelites who exploited the vulnerable and ignored all the rules of justice and ethical behaviour, including selling people into slavery. The parashah is a family affair – but through the lens of the prophet, we recognise how all individual cases of wrongdoing add up to an unjust and immoral society.

Where is the voice of God in the Joseph story? Later, when Joseph, finally reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them that their actions were part of a Divine plan. But does this absolve them? Although we may understand why Joseph’s brothers took revenge on him, can we justify it? Joseph’s story does not invite us to ask these questions directly; however, when read alongside the haftarah, we have an opportunity to explore a familiar tale of a dysfunctional family from a very different, ethical perspective.