This week begins the final story arc of the Book of Bereshit, Genesis. The characters are the sons of Jacob, the Children of Israel. While they have been mentioned and played small roles earlier, this is now their moment to take the spotlight. Joseph in particular is given the starring role as we read parasha vayeshev.
The record of Joseph is a bit mixed. All the midrashim associated with Joseph depict him as a famous, well-known, well-loved superstar. Angels tremble when his name is simply spoken. It was because of him that the miracle at the Red Sea would occur. At the same time, our tradition tells us all the sufferings that would befall the people Israel are the result of Joseph’s conflict with his brothers. Interestingly, Joseph, of all people, is called Tzaddik, a righteous man. When we are first introduced to him, he is depicted as an arrogant brat, egotistical, naive and immature, words that do not conjure up the image of righteousness.
So, how is it possible that Joseph is called a righteous man? He is arrogant, haughty and deceives his brothers. He dreams of ruling over his brothers (twice!) and then tells not only them, but his parents! He puts his brothers through a prolonged episode of deception and never thinks of contacting his father during his absence. Are these the actions of a righteous person?
So, why is Joseph a Tzaddik? Righteousness, nor any other character trait, is not something we are born with. It’s something we can develop as a result of our life experiences. And it is not something we simply attain once. Joseph becomes a Tzaddik because he knows what it is like to not be righteous. He has been through many trials in his life and building on those experiences, both what happened to him and what he did to others, gives him the context to see life from a different perspective. But, the most important part, is his choice on how he behaves. Joseph’s life and story are so compelling because he literally rises from the depths of the life to the highest pinnacle, both in a physical and moral sense. He was in a pit and ends up as Pharaoh’s right hand man. He was an arrogant little brother, yet rises above that and forgives his brothers and makes peace with them.
In this way, he is truly a tzaddik, one whom we should emulate in his growth as a person.