Revealer of Spiral

In Veyeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about all family politics of Yakov’s family. It is bad enough Yakov has a favorite wife, but why would he ever community communicate this to his children? Reading this seems to be perfect preparation for everyone spending a lot of time with family on Thanksgiving. Here we read about the brothers capturing Yosef, Rubin saving him from being killed, and their selling him into slavery. There we read:

Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him. And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Yosef out of the pit, and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Yosef into Egypt. (Genesis 37: 27-28)

The brothers tell their father he was killed by a beasts and Yakov is lost in mourning. And then at the end before the whole Yehudah and Tamar interlude we read:

And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37: 36)

There is some confusion. Did the brothers sell him to Ishmaelites or to Midianites? On one level this confusion is communicating that Yosef was passing through many hands indicating that he was a commodity. Maybe on a deeper level the Torah communicates this so that we know that even if the brothers showed remorse and wanted to recover their brother they could not do it. But is there any significance to the fact that Yosef passed through the hands of the Midianites?

Who was Midianites? They were the descendants of Midian, who was a son of Avraham through his wife Keturah. As we read:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah. (Genesis 25:1-2)

According to the Midrash, Rashi,Gur Aryeh, Keli Yakar, and Obadiah of Bertinoro Keturah was actually Hagar (Bereshit Rabbah 61:4). Hagar remarried Avraham after the death of Sarah. Why did she change her name to Keturah? Keturah is a reference to the  incense used in worship. Hagar’s new name was symbolic of the pleasantness of her return from exile and repentance. Yosef  the privileged child of the loved wife was captured by his brothers who in turn sell him to the children of Yishmael who in turn sell him to the children of Keturah, both children of the original scorned wife. Hagar’s exile is marked by her blindness to the source of water to sustain her child in the wilderness. There we read:

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. ( Genesis 21: 16-19)

Similarly Yosef’s power came from his ability to predict the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. He was able to lift his head and see the water. Like Hagar having her name change to Keturah Yosef’s name was changed by Pharaoh to Zaphnath-Paaneah – צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ‎ – revealer of mysteries or secrets (Genesis, 41:45). Hagar’s exile, renaming, and reconciliation with Avraham is similar to the story of Yosef’s exile, renaming, and reconciliation with his brothers. Living in the Diaspora, it is easy to relate to Yosef’s narrative as a uniquely Jewish tale. It is good to be remind ourselves that our story of surviving and even thriving at the margins while important is not unique to the Jewish people, and in fact it never was.

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