May 24, 2024
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Yosef and His Brothers: The Paradigm of Youth

The narrative of Yosef and his brothers is the only story in Chumash that dwells on the complicated journey from the teenage years to adulthood. At the time of mechirat Yosef, Yosef and his brothers are teenagers and young adults; in the context of Chumash and the long lifespans of the avot, their youth is striking. The development of their characters over the course of the past few parshiot is awe-inspiring, and reminds us of the core truths of growing up.

Sippur Yosef is perhaps the most compelling story of teshuva in all of Chumash. The brothers grow and change almost beyond recognition from the beginning of the story to its end. While Yehuda—who evolves from the astonishing callousness of mechirat Yosef to the deep humanity and compassion of his speech in Parshat Vayigash—provides the most striking model of teshuva, each of the brothers travels his own incredible path. Yosef begins, in his youth, by inciting his brothers’ jealousy and reporting on them to his father; he ends with magnanimous forgiveness when he declares “You did not send me here, but God.” The Rav points out that Yosef, in this week’s parsha, asks his brothers—rather than his sons—to ensure that he is buried in Eretz Yisrael. The Rav suggests that Yosef makes this choice because he is motivated not only to ensure his proper burial, but to repair his damaged, distrustful relationship with his brothers by humbling himself to be dependent upon their kindness. Yosef begins by sowing discord through his majestic dreams, and ends by willingly making himself subject to his brothers’ goodwill.

The trajectory of the brothers reflects the incredible growth of the teenage years, as people have the capacity to change in ways that cannot be imagined at the outset. As parents and educators, one of our most important roles is to believe in that growth—even when it seems impossible, or when our children do things that disappoint us—and to strive to give them the support, freedom and love they need to chart their own inimitable, unforeseeable paths.

While all of the brothers grow and change enormously over the course of sippur Yosef, they also manifest personal qualities that remain constant. From the very beginning of his story, Yosef Hatzadik stands out as someone who seeks and invokes Hashem even in the midst of the greatest challenges—from his experience with eishet Potiphar, to his conversations with the sar hamashkim and sar ha-ofim, to his heroic declaration in this week’s parsha that “you intended to do evil against me, but Hashem intended it for good.” In a different but perhaps related vein, Yosef distinguishes himself for his aspirations to majesty and accomplishment. He demonstrates this quality first in his teenage dreams of greatness, and at the end of his story when he instructs his brothers, upon their reunion, “Tell my father about all of my honor in Egypt.” Throughout his life, Yosef aspires to reach beyond the limits that life imposes upon him.

Perhaps this is the meaning of the enigmatic pasuk in this week’s parsha in which Yaakov Avinu tells his sons, “Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” As the mefarshim note, this pasuk is actually followed by Yaakov’s descriptions of his sons’ characters and actions, not a prophecy about the future. Maybe Yaakov is implying that what will happen to a person in the future is, to a great extent, determined by his personal qualities and deeds in the present and past. While the brothers change vastly over the course of their lives, their most essential qualities remain constant and enable their growth. An important part of parenting and of education is striving to understand and honor the glory and complexity of each individual, with an appreciation of those qualities that are core and unchanging.

Perhaps the most important message for parents and educators lies at the end of this week’s parsha, in Yosef’s final speech to his brothers, when he reassures them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?” These words remind us of Yaakov’s response to Rachel when she is desperate for children, before she becomes pregnant with Yosef: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Yosef’s life, from conception through his ascension to royalty, speaks of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of individuals and nations. As we strive to raise and educate our children and teenagers with wisdom and love, we are also dependent on chasdei Hashem at each step of the journey; being a parent means being in a perpetual state of tefillah. May we learn from and internalize the messages of sippur Yosef and be blessed to raise our children with respect for who they are, belief in who they will become, and with the most precious gift of siyata dishmaya.

By Rivka Kahan


Rivka Kahan is the principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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