Do We Learn Only through Terrible Pain?

It’s hard to read the story of Joseph and his brothers without asking that question.

Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob by Diego Velazquez. Wikimedia.

Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob by Diego Velazquez. Wikimedia.

Dec. 24 2014
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

The Torah reading of Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27) shifts about in time and space between Egypt and Canaan, but starts and ends at the throne of Egypt. Its central theme is who should wield power and how, and the choice is illustrated through two sons of Jacob, neither of them the eldest, who square off in front of the throne.

Joseph, you will recall, was the chief of his father’s hopes. “These are the chronicles of Jacob,” the Torah has told us (Genesis 37: 2), and goes on: “Joseph was seventeen years old.” That’s it. No ten older sons, just Joseph. And then things go awry. In the next line we learn that whenever the brothers are out with the sheep in the field, Joseph acts as his father’s surrogate overseer, reporting their misdemeanors back to him.

Next thing you know, Joseph’s brothers have stripped him of his multicolored coat and thrown him in a pit. Two of his older brothers, who could be viewed as in loco parentis, fail to protect him. Reuben, the eldest, wanders off; on returning, he finds Joseph gone from the pit, and announces that he has no idea what to do. Judah, not the eldest but the brother who even at this stage is a little more effective, talks his siblings into selling Joseph for profit to a passing band of their Ishmaelite cousins.

At this point in the story, if you’re looking for a designated carrier of the family mission, you have a problem. Joseph, upon whom the Torah sets our hopes, is morally compromised by his position as a tattle-tale. Reuben, the eldest, is ineffectual. Judah has saved Joseph’s life, but only by selling him. Who’s the man?


Before the brothers will meet again at the throne of Egypt, one crucial change occurs. Judah suffers the death of his own sons and is forced to admit that his childless and twice-widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, having been impregnated by him when he mistook her for a harlot, has acted more justly than he. At some risk and cost to herself, she has taken drastic steps to produce an heir and perpetuate his family. So the Judah who now stands before Joseph is a different character in two significant respects: he has suffered loss, and he has absorbed that loss creatively, having acknowledged the suffering and the claims of someone other than himself.

How does this change in Judah play out when all twelve sons of Jacob meet at the throne of Egypt? Joseph, risen now to the position of Pharaoh’s vizier, and unrecognized by his brothers, has used his power to test their character. Ensnaring them in a situation of his own secret devising, he has demanded that Benjamin, the youngest brother, stay behind in Egypt as his personal slave, thus giving them a chance to repeat the crime they committed against him all those years ago. If the brothers are still the same brothers, they will walk away, abandoning Benjamin to rot. But one of these sons of Jacob, rising to the occasion, demonstrates the qualities that, down the line, will entitle his descendant to become the rightful king of Israel.

But Judah approached him and said, “On my head be it, milord,
Let your servant speak a word in your lordship’s ear
And do not be angry with your servant for as you are, you are as Pharaoh.
Your lordship inquired of his servants, saying, Have you a father or brother?
And we told your lordship, We have an aged father and a little son of his dotage
But his brother died, and he was left the only one from his mother
And his father loves him . . . and your servant my father told us,
“You know my wife bore me just two, and one went out from me and I said only,
‘Surely savaged,’ and I’ve not seen him since
But if you take this one too from before my face and something happens to him
You’ll send me in a rotten old age to the underworld.”
And now if I return to your servant my father
And the boy’s not with us (and his life hangs upon his life),
And should he see the boy’s not there and die,
Then we your servants will have sent your servant our father in agony to the underworld.
But your servant is liable for the boy to my father, having said,
“If I don’t bring him to you then I’ll sin against my father all his days.”
And now let your servant sit in place of the boy as a slave to your lordship.

Judah’s speech is a narrative of familial connections and obligations, pointing finally and conclusively to how they require Judah himself to respond. The end point of the moral undertakings he has given his father is this: unlike Joseph the family tattle-tale, and unlike Reuben the ineffectual eldest, and unlike even Judah himself in his former days, Judah now places moral obligation above his own profit and comfort, and others ahead of himself.

Judah thus becomes the true leader of his brothers, and his descendant David will be the true king of all Israel, because he is ready to sacrifice his own freedom to secure Benjamin’s and to preserve his father’s life. David, for his part, will repeatedly forgo opportunities to kill King Saul (a descendant of Benjamin) long after Saul has tried to kill him, because he owes loyalty to Saul as the anointed king. Self-sacrifice confers moral authority. We see Judah’s moral stature emerge when he acknowledges Tamar’s just cause. Now we see an example of moral grace emerging under considerably greater pressure. How is moral authority measured? The Torah tells us it is measured in what you will give up, not in what you will gain.


In the face of Judah’s evident transformation, Joseph breaks down in tears. At the end of the reading, after the brothers have returned to Canaan and fetched Jacob and all his worldly goods back to Egypt, after the Lord has appeared to Jacob and reassured him that He will stay with him in Egypt, after the brothers have come and settled in Egypt—after all that, we return to the throne of Egypt and watch Joseph govern:

And Joseph provided his father and brothers and all of his father’s household with bread
According to the number of children, and there was no bread in the entire country
For the famine was very great
And the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan went out of their minds from hunger
And Joseph pocketed all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and Canaan
For the grain they were getting and Joseph brought the money to Pharaoh’s house
And the money ran out in the land of Egypt and land of Canaan
And all Egypt came to Joseph saying, Give us bread
For why should we die before you, for there’s no money
And Joseph said, Give your livestock
And I’ll give you in return for your livestock if there’s no money
And they brought their cattle to Joseph and Joseph gave them bread
For their horses and for sheep and for cattle and for donkeys
And he led them with bread for all their livestock that year.

In just one word of the final verse here, you have the nub of this reading. The Torah uses the verb nihel—which I have rendered as “led,” following the King James Version of the same verb in its translation of Psalm 23, “He leads me beside the still waters.” In modern Hebrew, the word would be translated instead as “managed” or “administered,” and I see the point. I tend to be influenced by the way words have come to be used in modern Hebrew. Some might argue that this betrays an insensitivity to biblical usage, but I also look at the words as seeds in the womb of time, or as rocks rolling down a hill. Where a word ends up may tell you something about where it was when it was still halfway down the slope.

So you can take the word nihel and translate it as you wish, depending on the kind of king or leader you’d like to have. If you translate it as “led,” you maintain the fiction that Joseph was a rightful king; if you translate it as “managed,” then I would argue you have a truer picture of Joseph. He started his career managing his brothers, went on to manage Potiphar’s household, had a brief foray into psychoanalytic practice by interpreting the dreams of the baker, the butler, and finally Pharaoh himself, and then resumed his career as the manager of all of Pharaoh’s household, which in this Torah reading he expands to include all of Egypt, down to the last grain of sand. One son of Jacob who has not changed since he was seventeen is Joseph.

And that year ended and they came to him the second year and told him,
We won’t hide things from milord, for as the money’s gone
And the livestock beasts are with milord
There’s nothing left before milord except our bodies and our land.
Why should we die before your eyes, both us and our land?
Buy us and our lands with bread and we and our lands will be slaves to Pharaoh,
And give seed so we’ll live and not die and the land won’t be barren.
And Joseph bought all the lands of Egypt for Pharaoh
For the Egyptians sold each man his field
For the famine was strong upon them
And the land became Pharaoh’s
And the people he moved into cities from one end of Egypt or another,
And Joseph said to the people, Indeed I’ve bought you today
And your lands for Pharaoh—Here’s your seed, sow your land.

I’d never really paid attention to that line about moving the people, but now it leaps out at me, even after the already painful catalogue of asset-stripping and enslavement. This Torah reading bookends the Jewish people’s arrival in Egypt with two chains of events that in the end will lead to their own enslavement. In the first, Judah makes the case for his own self-sacrifice and enslavement. That is why Judah should be king. In the second, Joseph acts to enslave everybody but himself and his own family. That is why he should not be king.

And the line about moving the people? These were farmers; their land was all they had. Joseph has not only made them serfs working somebody else’s land, he has removed them from the land altogether and resettled them elsewhere; he has made them into property that he can do with as he likes. The Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao comes to mind, a mass relocation of the populace from one place to another to exercise the power of one individual.

Joseph has learned absolutely nothing from the loss he suffered by being enslaved at his brothers’ hands. In their great recognition scene at the throne, his very words to them are:

But now it was not you who sent me here
But God who made me Pharaoh’s chief and master of all his household
And ruler over all the land of Egypt.

The word Joseph uses for chief is av: literally, father or, alternatively, patron. But what Joseph means by the word is master, as he immediately makes clear. The only human relationship we’ve seen Joseph enter into is with his father, who favors him so egregiously as to endanger Joseph’s very life—much as, in the previous generation, Rebecca’s partiality for Jacob over his brother Esau wound up endangering his life. Joseph has no idea how to be a father to anybody, let alone a king. All he knows is how to recreate his own role as manager, and to perpetuate a cycle of abuse by visiting upon all of Egypt the fate his brothers visited on him.

And so, as this reading ends and the sons of Jacob are, ever so tenuously, perched on the lip of the abyss of slavery that Joseph has turned Egypt into, we are left with a very uncomfortable picture of moral life.

None of Jacob’s sons ever has anything to do with the Almighty. The Lord appears to their father Jacob and reassures him. He never says a word to Joseph, or to Judah, or to Reuben—a generation of sons who wander the desert as shepherds without a moral compass. It’s as if the Lord set them loose across a billiard table and let them bounce around to see which one would go where. And when the prophecy He long ago made to Abraham comes true, and all of the patriarch’s descendants are enslaved—through the actions of this one son of Jacob, the one who was the crown of his father’s hopes—He’ll pluck up somebody else to talk to and saddle him with the responsibility to be self-sacrificing for 40 years, putting the people first.

Joseph is not that man; he is no Moses. Joseph doesn’t learn from anything. Judah does learn, and has some of the qualities of a king—humility, for one. But it’s hard to come out of this Torah portion without asking a very disquieting question: is there no way to learn anything but through terrible pain? And even then, there’s no guarantee? After all, only one of those sons of Jacob learns anything. The other just perpetuates the pain and builds it, at one remove, as a trap that in the fullness of time will spring on his own family and people.

More about: Joseph, The Monthly Portion, Torah, Vayigash