Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Vayeishev

Wednesday, I sat our 7th graders around a library table and had each open the Chumash (Torah commentary book) to this week’s Torah portion. I had each take turns reading and providing commentary on the texts we read. We began the Joseph story, and I watched, in amusement, as each reacted to Joseph and his “Jacob’s favorite” status. Each agreed that dreaming that you are better than everyone else in the family is a bad thing (even though some jokingly quipped that they really were better). Telling everyone about these dreams is outrageous.

As we got to the part of the story where Joseph’s brothers first plot to kill him and then decide to sell him off to cousins who happened to be traveling by, they were appalled. I reminded them that at least they spared his life even while still getting rid of him. They felt a little better until I put the whole story in context. “So, they got rid of their brother and got money for it. If they had just killed him, there would have been no money.” One young man picked up on this, “So, it is not that they wanted to spare his life, this was just a better deal.” They all agreed that this was just wrong.

I then asked them why they needed to take Joseph’s coat and dip it into goat blood for Dad. If they returned and were asked about Joseph’s whereabouts, all they had to do was say, “We never saw him.” Another astute student chimed in, “If they did that, then they could not have taken revenge on dad. they wanted to watch Jacob suffer for having chosen Joseph over them.”

Here is the good news: they were attentive and they understood how difficult the story could be, Here is the bad news: understanding the ugly came really easy to them … no one seemed at all shocked that this ugliness existed in Torah. When I begin this conversation with adults, this line of conversation is always quite uncomfortable. The Bible, to most, is a medium for feeling better about one’s place in life.
Normally, I have to then show groups how to redeem the story. Wednesday, though, well, here is the really good news: I did not have to do so. After again exclaiming how difficult this story was, several exclaimed that they could never do that to anyone. As I smiled, one said, “That is the point, huh?” It took one student a little bit to think this one through, but I have to tell you how much I love watching our youth take ownership of our tradition. Torah teaches us through both positive and negative lessons. This is its magic.

So, I asked one more question, “How is it then, if these people acted that badly, that we talk about them as our honored ancestors?” Another said, “Well, I don’t know if these stories ever happened or not, but I know that I have never done anything this bad. If God can find a way to still love these guys, I know I must be ok. Rabbi, this was fun!” You have to love watching these young adults grow up! Shabbat Shalom.