Joseph and their life of many genders: LJ Thought on Va-yeishev – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Parental favouritism is a central theme of the Torah narratives about our ancestors and comes to the fore with the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob, to Rebecca and Isaac (Genesis 19:22-26). Isaac favoured Esau and Rebecca favoured Jacob. (25:28). Unfortunately, once a father and blessed with twelve sons and a daughter, Jacob also had his favourite: Joseph. But as we see when the Joseph story opens, Joseph was not just the favourite child; Joseph was utterly different from Jacob’s other sons. Further: Joseph’s difference centred on a characteristic that takes the story beyond the theme of parental favouritism into the realm of the beyond: gender nonconformity – or, to use more contemporary language: non-binary gender fluidity.
As we read at Genesis chapter 37, which is where parashat Va-yeishev opens, the beautiful coat Joseph received as a gift from Jacob, k’tonet passim, a ‘coat’ that reached to the ‘palms’ (37:3), signalled more than Joseph’s special status in Jacob’s affections. K’tonet passim was also the garment of a princess. In the Second Book of Samuel, when Tamar, the daughter of King David was assaulted by her half-brother, Amnon, we read that: ‘She was wearing a k’tonet passim, for virgin princesses were dressed thus in olden times’ (II Sam. 13:18-19). Significantly in the biblical narratives, Tamar and Joseph alone are dressed in a k’tonnet passim.
So, Joseph was dressed like a royal virgin princess. And his ‘princesses’ garment’ also provided a visual representation of Joseph’s unique qualities. Joseph wasn’t a shepherd like their brothers; Joseph was a dreamer, whose dreams revealed an exceptional calling. Joseph dreamt that the family were all binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly Joseph’s sheaf stood up and remained upright, and then their sheaves gathered round and bowed down to it. Joseph dreamt that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to them (Gen. 37:5-9). Jacob was angry and bewildered by Joseph’s dreams (37:10). He was also oblivious of the feelings of his older sons towards his favourite child – which is why Jacob sent Joseph on an errand to go and see how they were, as they tended the flocks (37:12-14).
It is hardly surprising that Joseph’s older brothers took the opportunity to wreak their revenge on the princesses’-garment-wearing-dreamer-favourite of their father. If it hadn’t been for the actions of the eldest brother, Reuben, they would have killed Joseph. As it was, the fourth eldest, Judah came up with a plan of selling Joseph to a travelling caravan of merchants, who took Joseph down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, a courtier and chief steward of Pharaoh (37:18-36).
What happened in Egypt reinforces the message about the dreamer’s unique capacities. Indeed, we read that God brought blessing and prosperity to Potiphar’s household ‘for Joseph’s sake’ (39:5). However, it was Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams that got Joseph out of prison (41:39 ff.) after being wrongfully arrested for attempting to sexually assault Potiphar’s wife (39:13-20), and resulted in Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s chief vizier, overseeing the collection of grain during the seven years of plenty in readiness for the seven years of famine to follow (41:46 ff.).
Joseph was special. But it was the incident with Potiphar’s wife that provides another way of understanding Joseph’s specialness (39:7ff.). On the one hand, the tale at this point simply conveys the vulnerability of Joseph the ‘Hebrew slave’ in the house of his Egyptian master – and mistress. And so, the reader understands why Joseph ran away, leaving their simple garment (beged) in her hand, when she kept pleading with Joseph on successive occasions to ‘lie’ with her (39:7-12). On the other hand, this story within a story, opens by saying how ‘beautiful’ Joseph was – literally, ‘beautiful’ (39:6): Va-y’hi Yosef y’feih to’ar vifeih mareh – ‘Joseph was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance’.
At first glance, the reference to Joseph’s ‘beauty’ simply acts as a preamble, explaining why ‘his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph’ (39:7). But this phrase is more than a statement about Joseph’s attractiveness; it links Joseph directly with their mother, Rachel, whom Jacob had fallen in love with at first-sight because she was so beautiful (Gen. 29:17): v’rachel hay’tah y’fat to’ar vifat mareh – ‘Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance’.
Hebrew is an entirely gendered language. The only difference between this phrase about Rachel and the later one about Joseph is that the verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with Rachel are in the ‘feminine’ gender and those associated with Joseph are in the ‘masculine’ gender. But the difference in gender only serves to underline the similarity between the two phrases: Joseph was ‘beautiful’ as Rachel was ‘beautiful’.
So, what do we make of Joseph? After a spell in prison, the exceptional dreamer who wore a princesses’ garment and was utterly beautiful, was elevated by Pharaoh to be his second-in-command, dressed as an Egyptian overlord, given a new name – Tzaph’nat Panei’ach – married to As’nat, the daughter of Poti-phera, Priest of On (41:39-45), and became the father of Ephraim and Manasseh (41:50-52). Joseph wore a variety of different garments and many guises, transcending a simplistic understanding of who ‘Joseph’ was. Joseph: an exception that proves the rule – and yet, also a model and exemplar of another gender-fluid way of being human; which brings me to Joseph’s name: Yoseph – based on the Hebrew root, Yud Sameich Pei, to ‘add’. As we try to make sense of Joseph, binary gender categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ just don’t work. Perhaps, what we need to do in order to encompass the complexity of Joseph and acknowledge fully Joseph’s qualities is add a dimension of humanity between male and female. And so, may we learn from the story of the one who was Yoseph to recognise that life transcends our attempts to impose binary gender definitions – and may we also acknowledge all the Yosephs in our midst.