The story of Joseph’s sale into slavery, rise to prominence and reconciliation with his brothers is one of the most dramatic in world literature. Beyond the facts is a deep message about the human condition.
When one reads Genesis from the beginning the lines between good and evil are clear drawn. In every section there is a hero and a villain; people who are right and people who are wrong. For example, there is Noah vs. the rest of the world; Abraham vs. Nimrod; Isaac vs. Abimelech; Jacob vs. Esau; Jacob vs. Laban. There is always a clear choice who is right vs. who is wrong, a hero and a villain.
However, when we come to the story of Joseph and his brothers it is hard to decide who is right and who is wrong. There are no villains; they are all heroes. That is why the story of Joseph is so complicated and why so much space is devoted to it.
Wild Animals of the Human Heart
Joseph had long been a thorn in the brothers’ sides. He was constantly provoking his brothers, even telling them dreams of how he was going to rule over them and how they were going to bow down to him. This was exacerbated by the fact that his father had given him a special multi-colored shirt of iridescent silk, which was the symbol of rulership. The brothers, justifiably, felt that he was not just a misguided teenager, but someone looking to dominate them and therefore a real danger; an abject threat to their existence.
Consequently, they felt justified when threw him into a pit and debated if they should kill him. It was Judah who argued that they sell him rather than kill him and ultimately Joseph was sold to slave traders and taken down to Egypt.
Now they were faced with what to say to their father. They decided to slaughter a goat, rip the shirt and dip it in the pool of blood. Then they returned to their father, but did not say that Joseph was eaten by a wild animal. Instead, they asked him, “Is this his shirt?” Jacob, on his own then concluded that his son Joseph was “torn asunder by wild animals.”
Of course, Jacob said was not true: Joseph had not been torn apart by wild animals. It is a given that every word in the Bible is true. Why, then, was it left in the Bible? What purpose does recording Jacob’s misperception of the situation serve?
These leads to the lesson, to the great truth that one needs to be aware of, that there are “wild animals” in the world. And just as there are wild animals in the literal sense there are wild animals in the moral-spiritual-psychological makeup of human beings. Therefore, Jacob’s comment that Joseph was torn apart by wild animals was not inaccurate. In the deeper sense, he was not speaking about crocodiles or lions. He was speaking about the “wild animals” that inhabit the human heart. They, in fact, are the backdrop to the entire story of Joseph and his brothers. The source of Jacob’s grief is the wild animal that inhabits the heart of Joseph and his brothers.
The rabbis characterize “wild animals” with three human traits: jealousy, desire (including sexual) and the pursuit of honor. Those are the three basic character traits that, if unchecked, bring people to destruction. Each of them is reflected in the story of Joseph and his brothers, as well as on every page of every news report we read every day.
King Solomon says in Proverbs that jealousy is worse than death. It consumes us. It lives with us every minute. The entire advertising industry is built upon jealousy. It makes you feel that if you do not have the newest gadget, whether you need it or not (and almost always you do not need it), you are something less than whole.
The brothers were jealous of Joseph. He had a shirt they did not. He had more of his father’s love than they had. He had a charismatic personality that they did not have. He had dreams that they were never given. He had ambitions that were far from them.
In giving in to jealousy and not assessing correctly the consequences, the brothers doomed themselves to be haunted by this fatal impulse all of their remaining lives. They never again had a normal relationship with him even after they became reconciled with him! Even then – after Joseph became viceroy of Egypt and they were both fed and protected by him in the land of Goshen – they revealed their fears to him after their father died. They reminded Joseph how their father said he should not try to get even with them. That was proof that they always retained the fear that arose from their guilt.
Jealousy is a sore that never heels. It is an illness that knows no cure. It is the wild animal that consumed Joseph.
The second “wild animal” is desire.
People think that they are immune to desire. Somebody else might end up being guilty of this, but not me. However, the rabbis said that when it comes to sexual desire no one is immune. No one can trust himself in these matters.
That is why Jewish society has always tried to build a firewall around inappropriate desire. It is not fanaticism. It is just the reality in the world. The reality cannot be repealed by saying it does not exist.
So many otherwise powerful people have been undone by the most foolish of behaviors. Presidents, governors, senators, sports figures and so forth. What possesses them? They thought they were immune.
This is the force Joseph was up against He had risen to chief steward in the house of the government official Potiphar. Alone and in servitude, he was seemingly easy prey for the jaded wife of Potiphar, who was irresistibly attracted to him and attempted to seduce him. Joseph resisted and resisted — but was also susceptible after a point. However, at the last moment he resisted the temptation of the moment and realized the destructive consequences of immoral behavior.
For that strength, Joseph will become known in Jewish history as “Joseph the righteous.” The righteous are only those who were susceptible but refused to give in. Angels are not susceptible. Only humans are. Therefore, how we control our passions is what makes a person righteous.
The contest between right and wrong, good and evil, the moral and the despicable, is a never- ending one. We are always tempted but we are bidden not to give in to temptation. Our ability to control ourselves in the face of temptation is the battlefield of our lives.
The Pursuit of Honor
The third “wild animal” is the pursuit of honor. Honor knows no limits. The rabbis say that “he who pursues honor will see honor flee from him. Yet, he who flees from honor – honor may yet catch up to him.” The pursuit of honor is like the greyhound at the dog track chasing the mechanical rabbit but never catching it. A human being can run after honor but he will never catch it.
“Who is honored?” the rabbis ask. “He who gives honor to others.” Such a person does not need honor himself. Therefore, he often discovers that it finds him.
Joseph does not need to pursue honor, because it always pursues him. He was honored in the house of Potiphar when he became the steward. He was honored in jail and became the chief warden. He was even honored by the brothers. Their enmity over his specialness was an honor for him.
The final point is that Joseph attempted to bring the brothers to a realization of what they did to him. He attempted to bring them to a moment where they would repent.
How does one measure repentance? Not by saying one is sorry. Repentance is determined by behavior.
Joseph concocts a whole plot framing his brother Benjamin, accusing him of being a thief. And the brothers believed that he was a thief. They said, “Your mother was a thief when she stole the idols from Laban. You are a thief. It is genetic.”
But the brothers do not desert Benjamin. They did not say to Joseph, “Keep him. We will go home and continue with our own lives.”
Rather, Judah said, “He is my brother. I cannot desert him. I am ready to go to war to save him. I cannot give him over without a fight.”
When Joseph heard that – that the brothers had come to the realization of how to treat a brother even if they thought the brother is guilty – he was ready to reveal his true identity. He was ready to have Jacob come down to Egypt and be reunited with the family.
Of course, the wild animals still exist within us — personally and nationally. They exist within all humanity. Our task is to avoid being consumed by them by returning to our innate good self and therefore vindicating God’s trust in us and the blessing that He bestows upon us.
 The Torah and the Midrash in recounting this tale of Joseph’s temptation and triumph point out the strengths that allowed Joseph to resist the advances of the wife of Potiphar. They included, but are not limited to, the upbringing and education he received from his father, his own visions and dreams and ambitions in life, his inherent holy nature and its ability to clearly identify right from wrong and his refusal to sin against God. All of these and other factors combine to allow Joseph to resist the temptation of the moment. The opportunity is present but the choice regarding that opportunity is left to each one of us to exercise. The factors that came to aid Joseph in avoiding the temptation to do wrong — a sense of family, a vision of the future and how we would wish ourselves to be remembered by later generations, and an innate fear of God — are present within all of us. Temptations to do wrong will always abound. The ability to deny victory to those temptations becomes the hallmark of true Jewish living.