Power, Language, and Settling: Questions from Joseph’s Story

The Joseph story, which begins in this week’s Torah portion raises questions about language, about power and how it is used, and about the possibility of learning an entirely new narrative about a story of which we are a part:

  • How does the language we use, even inside our own heads, affect the way we view an encounter?
  • How does the way one individual is described affect our views of others who share some background with that individual?
  • What does it mean for one person or group of persons to have power over another? Is it as changeable as a garment? Do we recognize when we are wearing a garment of power?
  • Do we sometimes pretend a sense of brotherhood when it suits us and drop it when it doesn’t?
  • Can we, today — like the biblical Joseph — create circumstances that lead to a “dizzying awareness of new narrative” that leads to different action?
  • Do we, as individuals or as part of a collective, try to settle for our own peace, even if we know others are suffering? How hard do we, like the biblical Jacob, work to remain oblivious to strife before us, even if we helped engender it?

Finally: what does this portion say about “living in the midst of history” and entering the eight days of Chanukah, designed to bring us out of the lowest level of light?

Vayeishev [“and he settled”]

This week’s Torah portion, Genesis 37:1-40:23, “Vayeishev [and he settled],” begins the story of Joseph and his brothers: his father’s favoritism, including the “coat of many colors,” and his brothers’ animosity; the sale of Joseph into slavery in Egypt; his rise to power, imprisonment, and re-rise; reconciliation in the family; and finally the settling of the Jews in Egypt. The story continues through the close of Genesis (50:26) and into the opening verses of Exodus, when “a new king arises over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)

Within the Joseph story is a false accusation of rape, a topic we all face with trepidation, aware of the ways in which this age-old story has colored perspectives on real accusations of sexual abuse over the centuries and the ways in which our Jewish communities, our college campuses, and the wider world struggle with sexual abuse and related issues today. Each time we cycle through the Torah portions, we have some choice about where to focus. This year, my focus was drawn to language and power in relation to race and bigotry. These themes are just as relevant to power and language in the realm of gender and sex.

A few related links for those interested:

American Jewish World Service for Dvrei Tzedek [words of justice]
Jewish Orthodox Feminist work on sexual abuse
Torah Queeries, “queer” views of the weekly portion
On the specific incident in which Joseph is accused of rape

Please share additional relevant resources.
Back to TOPBack to “Power”


The Joseph story puts a lot of focus on garments and dreams and appearances being not quite what is really happening, or maybe: everything having layers of reality. I want to explore here just a few of these points where a shift of perception changes the reading of a scene.

It all begins with poor Jacob who has somehow developed the misapprehension that he is entitled to a peaceful retirement after his years of exile and strife. Avivah Zornberg (The Beginning of Desire, see source materials for full citations) points out that Jacob is associated with “truth” in kabbalah and is seen here as trying to read the text of the covenant in a way that resolves conflict in his lifetime. But she notes that chapter 37 of Genesis (the start of this week’s portion) begins with vayeishev [“and he settled”], and ends with tarof toraf [“ripped to shreds”]. She continues, in her eloquent if disturbing way:

Jacob has attempted a reading [of that covenantal text] that proves to be woefully wrong. From a human perspective, there seems to be an irreducible disorder in things. No elegant composure can veil the organic dis ease of this world. And the full tension of composure and discomposure, of yishuv and tiruf, is felt most acutely by the righteous, by those whose sense of beauty, whose desire for harmony exposes them to the shock of reality.
Beginning of Desire, p.248

Instead of heading into the close of a complex tale, as Jacob seems to have hoped, the first few verses of this portion introduce what Zornberg calls “the zig-zag process by which Jacob’s children finally arrive at the point called yishuv — full settlement…, a discomposed, unsettled movement of lives, relationships, and locations begins here.” (ibid.)


There are many overturnings of fate and changes of perspective within the Joseph story, and some of them seem to be due to characters learning something new and even changing their behavior. In this portion (at Gen 37:18ff), the brothers throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites. We hear nothing of Joseph’s behavior inside this incident and nothing of the brothers’ response to him. But in next week’s portion, after Joseph has accused them of spying and insisted that Benjamin be brought to court, the brothers offer a different version of the same incident, adding in emotional content previously absent.

They said to one another, ‘Alas [aval, lit: “but”] we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”
-Gen 42:21

Zornberg says:

The strangely used word aval — “but” — suggests the vertigo of plot transformation. The brothers become dizzyingly aware of another narrative than the one they have been telling themselves all along. The uncanny, even savage irrationality of Joseph’s charge has forced them out of the “peace” of their narrative constructions, so that another, perhaps truer story can emerge.
–p.261, The Beginning of Desire



In one example of sharp perspective change in this week’s Torah portion, Potiphar’s wife offers different accusations of Joseph depending on her audience. To her husband, she calls Joseph a “Hebrew slave” and says “he came in to mock me.” The use of the term “slave,” according to Nechama Leibowitz, helps create a class-based “us vs. them” vibe to gain her husband’s sympathy, and the “mock me” stresses insult to her and, by extension, to him.

On the other hand, when she speaks to her staff, she calls Joseph a “Hebrew” and says he came to “mock us”: This, Leibowitz says, is meant to stress Joseph’s foreignness and put herself in the same boat with the household, all mocked by this outsider:

Potiphar’s wife in her effort to gain sympathy lumps her slaves together with herself as part of one family. The common enemy is the Jew. The immense gap is forgotten, the enormous class distinction between slave and master is overlooked in the cause of temporary self-interest.

This sudden recognition of the brotherhood of man under the pressure of outside circumstances and dictated wholly by self-interest is a common phenomenon.
–p.419, New Studies in Genesis
(See source materials for full citations)

Leibowitz goes on to explain how Jeremiah (Jer. 34:8ff) railed against the Jews for just this crime when they released their slaves for the sabbatical, under Zedekiah, because they couldn’t feed them and needed help with an enemy at the gate, but later re-enslaved them when danger had passed.


Just before the incident with Potiphar’s wife (unnamed in Torah, but called Zuleika in rabbinic tradition) is related, we learn two things: First, that Joseph had authority over everything in Potiphar’s household except the master’s “bread.” Second, that Joseph was “fair of form and fair of appearance.”

In rabbinic text, eating is sued as a metaphor for sexual intimacy; and Joseph’s statement to Zuleika that the master “has withheld nothing from me, other than you,” seems to support the idea that Zuleika is the only element in the household over which Joseph has been “given” control. (See note above about false accusations and sexual abuse above.)

The placement of Joseph’s physical description here, so long after his story began, is explained by Rashi as an indication that Joseph had taken to new ways:

As soon as he saw himself as a ruler, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. Said the Holy One blessed be He: Your father is in mourning and yet you curl your hair! I shall incite the bear against you. Immediately, “his Master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph.” [Gen 39:6]

[Leibowitz explains:] According to this interpretation, Joseph was enamoured of the new life he was living in Egypt, the country of wealth and culture, and his eyes were blinded to the unreal nature of the power that had been placed in his hands…his disgust for idols and his sense of repulsion for their sexual malpractices began to pall.
New Studies in Genesis, p.414

It is unclear in the text, and commentary is divided, as to whether Joseph had been steadfastly ignoring Zuleika’s advances or whether he was fond of her or lusting for her body. There is a question about what kind of “work” left him alone with the woman whose intentions had been made clear (though, of course, despite his privileges, he remained enslaved and perhaps had no choice). We know nothing of Zuleika’s emotional state, either, and the ways she describes the encounter later — for whatever reason — treat Joseph as an object, not an individual human…always a practice with dangerous consequences.

As far as we know from the text, Zuleika and Joseph are never forced to reconcile in any way, and there is no set-up — as Joseph creates with his brothers — to prompt either of them to “become dizzyingly aware of another narrative than the one they’ve been telling themselves [and others] all along.”

Of course, on one level, the whole story is a fanciful tale of reversal of fortunes without any of the personal psychology that Zornberg sees in it or any of the collective morality that Leibowitz sees. But on another, level, I think both Leibowitz and Zornberg point us to a way of viewing the encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as a springboard for personal and collective questions — see above.

And Joseph does manage to create a situation that prompts a new narrative for his brothers, evolving a better sense of the humanity of someone they previously treated as a nuisance.

In the Midst of History

Zornberg reminds us that “interpretation in the midst of history will not be easy” and that the Torah never moves beyond turmoil into settlement. But she does suggest that prayer, as a reflexive activity [in Hebrew to prayer is a reflexive verb], can help us deal with the tornness of our present lives.

In a situation of unclarity, such as obtains in this world, any human act requires great courage, a motive force to appropriate and transform experience into the making of a world. Prayer is the quintessential act of this kind…
Beginning of Desire, p.280

As we begin Chanukah [“dedication,” “education”], may our prayers and learning and gatherings increase our understanding of power and language and our place in the midst of history.

If interested, visit Chanukah Action for resources to help increase justice.


Fabrangen Havurah

These remarks were originally prepared, in slightly different format, for Fabrangen West, a satellite prayer community of Fabrangen Havurah.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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