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The Story of Joseph: Sibling Rivalry, Slavery, and Redemption

Throughout Jewish history, since our people’s slavery in Egypt, Jews in the Diaspora have experienced periods of physical, economic or food insecurity as they did in Yosef’s time. Many of us are familiar with the scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” in which the Jews of Anatevka are told during a wedding reception that they must leave within a few days, and some of us may have heard stories about older relatives who always kept a packed suitcase under the bed. So what do we do as a result of our fear? What impact does this pressure have on our way of life and on our relationships? How does it affect our relationship with our brothers and sisters? As the first “Diaspora Jew,” there is much we can learn from the story of Yosef to help us answer these eternal questions.

The Jewish Story Explained is based on the book Letters to Auntie Fori: 5,000 Years of Jewish History and their Faith by Martin Gilbert.

Glossary

Yosef – Joseph

Avraham – Abraham

Moshe – Moses

Yehuda – Judah

Binyamin – Benjamin

Shimon – Simeon

Yacov – Jacob

Eisav – Esau

Yitzchak – Isaac

Hevel – Abel

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. In the Torah, who was the first person to believe in ethical monotheism?
    • Adam
    • Yosef
    • Avraham
    • Moshe
  2. Yosef was one of 13 children born to Yacov with Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. What was the name of his sister?
    • Tzipora
    • Dina
    • Tamar
    • Miriam
  3. What special skill did Yosef possess that made his brothers jealous of him?
    • Good with money
    • Could interpret dreams
    • Could live for days without food and water
    • Good at dying wool in different colors
    • Could lift a heavy stone off a well alone
  4. Which of the twelve brothers had the idea to sell Yosef to slavery to save him from being killed by the other brothers?
    • Yehuda
    • Binyamin
    • Shimon
    • Levi
  5. What were the names of Yosef’s two children?
    • Cain and Hevel
    • Yacov and Eisav
    • Yitzchak and Yishmael
    • Ephraim and Menashe
  1. A midrash (Vayikra Rabba 32:5) teaches us that the Children of Israel merited redemption from slavery in Egypt for having retained particular symbols of Jewish identity: they did not change their names, their language, did not speak lashon hara (derogatory speech about a person) and everyone observed the laws of arayot (forbidden relationships). Why did the ancient rabbis choose these four character traits as essential for survival in the Diaspora? In what way did Yosef exhibit some or all of these traits?
  2. Very few biblical stories end up as Broadway musicals that are hugely popular with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. What is it about the Yosef story that has such universal appeal?
  3. An article in myjewishlearning.com explains that Jewish commentaries generally view Yosef as a complex character who was ultimately a righteous person. While some acknowledge the immaturity of his actions when dealing with his brothers in his youth, Yosef is still largely regarded as an admirable figure for maintaining his Israelite identity in spite of his 20-year separation from his family. Tradition (Zohar, Bamidbar 236a) notably refers to Yosef as a tzadik (righteous person), and several commentators point to Yosef’s naming of his sons in Hebrew as a premier example of his dedication. Even with Yosef’s more questionable actions, like not contacting his family once he became Viceroy of Egypt, or testing his brothers by accusing them of being spies, the commentators refer us back to Yosef’s adherence to the messages of his dreams. Like Yosef, many big dreamers in history initially faced opposition. Who can you recall that had a dream or belief that changed history? What opposition did they face?
  4. How do you think the Jewish religion would be different today if Yosef had never gone down to Egypt and we were never slaves there?
  5. When Yosef’s brothers refused to give up Binyamin, they showed Yosef that they had learned a lesson and were sincere in their wish to protect him and their father Yacov from further loss and pain. Reflecting on this story, have you ever asked forgiveness from a friend, and felt the need to prove your sincerity? How did you do that?
  1. Use a ready made lesson plan about Yosef HERE.
  2. Imagine if Gucci, Armani and Vera Wang collaborated on making a colorful stained glass window into a jacket. Draw how you imagine the jacket would appear?
  3. Blessing our children and friends
    • Towards the end of the video, the narrator Rivka Deray speaks about the blessing Yacov gave to Yosef’s children. She says, “Ephraim and Menashe restored a unity of brotherhood that could only have happened because of Yosef’s tribulations and his rectification of the conflict he had with his brothers.” To this day, when boys are blessed on Friday night, parents express the hope that they will be “like Ephraim and Menashe,” the first pair of siblings in the Bible who did not quarrel with one another.
    • An explanation of the blessings for both boys and girls can be viewed here. If you feel comfortable, you may want to teach the blessing to the class and have students bless one another.
    • As you are teaching the blessing, remind students of the message that we learn from this story, which is that character is far more important than birth order in how we should judge another person.
    • The Hebrew words of the blessing can be found here with transliteration.
    • Listen to the blessing in song here.
  4. Give your students our Kahoot on Yosef!
  1. If you could ask Yosef one question about a decision he made in his life, what would it be?
  2. If you were Yacov, how would you feel about your sons, after the revelation that they had sold Yosef and lied about it? Do you think you could forgive them?
  3. Elie Wiesel once said, “Some stories are true that never happened.” Regardless of whether or not you insist on the literalness of each aspect of the Yosef story, why do you think it occupies so many pages of the Torah (more than almost any other narrative) and is so studied and debated by Jews to this day?
  1. Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
  2. Bim Bam, “How to Say the Jewish Blessing over Children
  3. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “Joseph’s Choices: Vengeance vs. Justice
  4. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks podcast: “Joseph and the Risks of Power (Miketz 5780)”
  5. Neima Novetsky podcast: “Vayigash: Joseph – Economic Genius or Tyrannical Leader?
  6. Goalcast, “The One Person Oprah Couldn’t forgive”

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