Vayayshev by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Weekly D'var Vayayshev 5777

Joseph and Others: Another Side of His Story

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Joseph (Enters grandly, to the sound of trumpets; stands haughtily, as to the manner born): You will note, Readers, that I am wearing my royal robes as Regent, Vice-Pharaoh, Minister of Agriculture, and practically every other Egyptian Government office; that pharaoh, Thutmose II, is an oaf who cares about nothing but hunting, hawking, and—well, never mind. You ask, what happened to my Coat of Many Colors? It is long gone, but I do not miss it. Papa meant well, but that colorful rag only got me into trouble with my brothers—bloodthirsty, vengeful scoundrels that they are.

God is with me, I suppose, even here in Egypt, this seething cauldron of international intrigue. It is hard to remain faithful to a single Tribal God, when Egypt’s pantheon offers so many enticing alternatives. For now, I would wish for a Shawabti, a wooden Robot-Joseph that could assist me in my many duties. I see by my power of prophecy—mine, not those charlatan Egyptian soothsayers—that my brothers will be along any month now, to purchase grain for their starving families. Ha! I will give them a warm welcome; you can bet on that.

(He exits; enter Reuben, looking tragic)

Reuben: My life has been nothing but misery since the day I was born. First, my mother was Leah, despised by her husband and my father, Jacob the Perfect, whose every deed is blessed by the LORD GOD. Secondly, am I not entitled, as the firstborn, to the lion’s share of the inheritance, when that time comes? After all, Papa will not live forever—though if he did, I would not be even slightly surprised. He is God’s Favorite, as Joseph was his. Thirdly, when I tried to rescue Joseph, that braggart and blowhard, from the wrath of our brothers, my every attempt was stymied, either by poor choices or sheer bad luck. Never mind: I have one more trick to pull off, to establish my rights of primogeniture, the biggest slice of Jacob’s gold and the inheritance—I will not say it in mixed company, but it concerns Aunty Bilhah. To what desperate ends will you drive me, O’ God? Or are you simply Blind Fate?

(Reuben slouches off; enter Judah, secure in his tribal position and confident in his rightness.)

Judah: Yes, yes; I did sin, but it was inadvertent. What, do you accuse me of being unfaithful to my own wife, and choosing instead a woman of ill virtue? I admit it, and repent me of my sin. There: is that enough? It was a failing, but I was immensely happy about  my successful bargaining in the sheep-market in Beersheva. I decided to treat myself to a little—something. Something standing at the crossroads, wearing a veil. Something they will never teach in Hebrew School, in whatever future our tribe finds itself.

Later, having heard that Tamar (That hussy! How dare she entice me?) was pregnant, doubtless by adultery, she being a widow, I did the right thing, as sheikh of my family: I commanded her to be dragged outside, and burnt. There, now! That was my decision, and I stand by it.

But when the strumpet presented me with the signet and staff I had left with her—or the courtesan she was pretending to be—I backed down, immediately. And now, she has given birth to sons, to whom I am both father and grandfather. I am also shocked (in the midst of this altogether shocking story) to find that one of them is named Peretz, who will be the ancestor of David, everyone’s hero, come the future. Imagine—and all from a petty dalliance at a crossroads!

(Potiphar’s Wife, known as Zuleikah, sashays in.) 

Zuleikah, Wife of Potiphar: Centuries of rabbinical commentary have dumped blame and disgrace on my hapless head, and it is completely unfair. Yes, I admit that I attempted to seduce that young Hebrew, Joseph; why would I not? He was handsome, inexperienced, and I needed a new toy—being a noblewoman in Imperial Egypt was luxurious, but dull, dull, dull. Yes, again, that I lied to my husband, that idiot, about the episode. I told him that the Hebrew had attempted to seduce me—as if a teenager could succeed in enticing an older woman of maturity and experience. And finally, it is true that I arranged to have the scamp tossed into jail. But do not be too hasty to condemn me: I was merely a part of the story, which I understand resulted in that Joseph’s becoming Grand Vizier and Vice-Pharaoh. Reader! Perhaps you should thank me?

(Enter the Butler and the Baker, looking about, sneakily.)

Pharaoh’s Ex-Cup-Bearer and Chief Adviser, known as The Butler: Please, do not harass me with accusations that, in return for Joseph’s kindness—he interpreted my Dream of Grapes by telling me that His Majesty would return me to my former high eminence, that of being his main counselor—at least, until that Joseph came along. Imagine: that nervy Hebrew, thinking he would replace me at Pharaoh’s ear! Consider: Thutmose II is an absolute ruler, able to have a man executed as easily as I would crush a mosquito. I still don’t know why he tossed me into that beastly prison—was there a grapeseed in his cup, or what? I admit that I strove to forget that ambitious little Israelite, but I had my own position to consider. I certainly did not wish to be hanged, the second time around.

Pharaoh’s Baker: I was never political; why should I have been? I was more concerned with making certain that my dough rose and the bread was tasty, than whether a new ruler rose over Egypt—which I see from the Afterlife has turned out to be that little, pushy, overreaching Hebrew, Joseph. Did he misinterpret my dream, the better to climb over me on his way to the top? Well, it hardly matters now—Osiris, god of Death, is beckoning to me, and I have no idea where I will spend the Afterlife. Ah, well. Consider, Reader: the only goal of life ought to be the performance of good deeds, not spending one’s existence grasping at ephemeral power. All else is dross.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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