With Hanukkah fast approaching, it must be Joseph time. Parashat Vayeshev begins the long cycle of Joseph stories which conclude the book of Genesis. We pick up the story at the moment in which Joseph – a slave purchased from Ishmaelites to whom his brothers had sold him – first arrives in Egypt. In terse, fast moving, prose, the Torah describes Joseph as one to whom “the Lord lent success to everything he undertook.” Joseph possesses the Bible’s version of the ‘Midas touch.’ Anything he touches turns to gold.
The Hebrew root that means success – tzadik, lamed, khet – also means to rush or to hurry. And Joseph is a young man in a hurry. The Torah’s rapid fire description yields that very sense of speed and ambition. Nahum Sarna notes that the author portrays multiple stages of success – ‘his master saw’, ‘he took a liking to Joseph’, ‘he made him him personal attendant’, ‘and put him in charge of his household’. Notably, the four stages involve an external, and entirely worldly, definition of success. Joseph’s master, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph’s ability and competency, and step by step, elevates his power and authority.
And yet, his very success renders him vulnerable; by the middle of the chapter Joseph finds himself in jail, subject to the whims of the ‘real’ authorities in Egypt. Perhaps ‘success’ – whatever that term really means – isn’t everything.
This brief piece of Joseph’s longer and larger story raises many questions for me. What really constitutes success? And who decides if one is successful or not? And, finally, what can we learn from Joseph’s experience about the dynamics of being an outsider? If we understand Joseph as a person on the margins attempting to break into the mainstream, what might we come to understand about the experience and feelings of ‘outsiders’ in our time and place?
For all of his achievement and success – on his own behalf and to the benefit of others – Joseph remains an outsider, a foreigner, an ‘other’. Parashat Vayeshev is our first opportunity to get inside the head and heart of this great outsider. Joseph has much to teach us.