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Joseph, The Favorite Son

Joseph, the dreamer and interpreter of dreams, is the son of a dreamer. It is no surprise that he is Jacob’s favorite son. Young Jacob dreamed of a stairway reaching to heaven, traveled by angels. In a dream-like state, Jacob wrestled.

Yet Joseph’s dreams of a heavenly connection are far more earth-bound in their implications. His dreams place him at the center of a universe in which every one in his sphere paid him homage, a scenario that was actualized, apparently, through his dream-interpretation skills for the Egyptian Pharaoh. As poet Ruth Brin, in her collection A Rag of Love, speaks the connections: “Joseph stood before the King of Egypt / as his father, Jacob had stood before the Wrestler.”

There is nothing directly in the parsha to suggest that the father-son connection reflects anything but Joseph’s status as the first-born son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel. Indeed, the emphasis on family lineage in Genesis, particularly focusing on Jacob, Esau and their offspring, seem disrupted somehow by the “novella” about one son’s sojourn in Egypt.

But as we know, the story will circle around and redress old scores, the tensions between Joseph and his brothers due to Jacob’s preferential treatment of him. Miketz offers several of these inner, circular connections, especially through the father-son connections. Parshat Miketz, like most of the Joseph cycle, seems to be people almost exclusively by male characters. It is a saga of brothers, fathers and sons, male bonding, and brotherly betrayal and loyalty.

There is something else about Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph, something related to masculine-feminine tension. Jacob, if you recall, was the favorite son of his mother. His twin brother Esau was an outdoorsman; Jacob a pale, smooth-skinned “mama’s boy.” Jacob, guided by his mother Rebecca’s devious plans, deceived his elderly father Isaac by disguising himself as his deeper- voiced, hairy brother.

Isaac himself, as a boy, a young man, and as a father, doesn’t seem to have much of a “voice” in Torah. His preference for his brawny boy may have reflected his inner yearning for an assertiveness and strength he lacked, or suppressed, perhaps leaving his quieter, softer son Jacob to dwell in Rebecca’s female realm.

Jacob as a father was abundantly blessed with sons. Yet of all of his brawny offspring, he chose the fair Joseph as the favorite. Did the young lad bear a striking resemblance to his beloved wife? Did his gift of the multi-colored garment serve to enhance and even feminize his son’s fine features, ones that Joseph highlighted further by curling his hair and painting his eyebrows, as the midrash suggests? Or did Jacob love this son the most because Joseph’s features were like his own? (Midrash Genesis Rabba 84:7)

Whatever the connection between his childhood experiences and his relationship to his father before his sojourn in Egypt, Joseph as a father seems to take a dim view of his heritage. Note the birth of Joseph’s sons, and their names. He names his firstborn Menasheh, explaining “God made me forget my hardship and my father’s house.” (Genesis 41:51) Extraordinary! A son begets a son, and names him, in effect, for the disruption of his connection to his father.

While this may at first seem harsh, the blow is somewhat softened, or rather illuminated, by the birth and naming of his second son, Ephraim, meaning, he says, “God made me bear fruit in the land of my affliction. (41:52) Hardship. Affliction. Here we see that Joseph is doing some of his own wrestling, coming to grips with the cards he has been dealt, the fate predicted in the realm of dreams.

The circle will come around again. As Jacob lays on his deathbed, in the closing parsha of the book of Genesis, he blesses Joseph’s sons as if they were his own. He added, too, another generational twist in the saga of our forefathers – he gave the younger son the “first” blessing, repeating that motif in yet another generation.

In our rituals we perpetuate the heritage of the two boys born to Joseph, yet claimed by Jacob, through the parental blessing over boys. “May you be like Ephraim and Menasheh,” we say, repeating the blessing offered by the grandfather to the grandsons, unwittingly reinforcing a thread in this compelling saga of boys and men, fathers and sons, dreamers and dreams.

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