Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Lena Eskin. Lena spent six summers as a camper and five years on staff, most recently as the Rosh Aidah for Kochavim B. After graduating from Cornell University and spending two years doing research at the National Institutes of Health, Lena moved to Chicago this fall to begin medical school at Rush Medical College.
The Power of Multiple Perspectives: Reflections on Parashat Vayeisheiv
by Lena Eskin
In this week’s parashah, Vayeisheiv, we get the first big chunk of the Joseph story. It’s chock-full of excitement: sibling rivalry, parental deception, imprisonment, and crazy dreams. Within the telling of this story, however, there are a few narrative elements that don’t quite add up. Early on in the parashah, Joseph’s brothers get pretty fed up with him and talk of killing him and throwing him in a pit. That is, until Reuben chimes in to suggest that they should let Joseph live; throwing him in a pit is punishment enough. The brothers seem on board and follow through with this new plan. But only a few verses later, Judah speaks up with the idea not to kill Joseph and instead sell him to the Ishmaelites. Why did Judah have to convince his brothers not to kill Joseph if Reuben had already accomplished that?
There are other apparent inconsistencies as well. Genesis 37:28 tells us the following:
וַיַּֽעַבְרוּ֩ אֲנָשִׁ֨ים מִדְיָנִ֜ים סֹֽחֲרִ֗ים וַֽיִּמְשְׁכוּ֙ וַיַּֽעֲל֤וּ אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִן־הַבּ֔וֹר וַיִּמְכְּר֧וּ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֛ף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֖ים בְּעֶשְׂרִ֣ים כָּ֑סֶף וַיָּבִ֥יאוּ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃
When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.
This pasuk (verse) prompts even more questions: Are the Midianites and the Ishmaelites distinct groups or one and the same? Who really brought Joseph to Egypt? And did his brothers actually sell him off or was he simply taken?
Some scholars believe that the Joseph story we read from the Torah today is actually a combination of two separate narratives woven together. One of these, which tells of Judah’s intervention to save Joseph’s life and the brothers selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites, comes from the oral tradition from the Kingdom of Judah, while the other, describing Reuben as Joseph’s savior and the Midianites pulling Joseph from the pit, comes from the Kingdom of Israel.
I really appreciate this interpretation of the origin of the Joseph story. While these details in the parashah can initially seem contradictory and confusing, they actually highlight a beautiful idea about our history and tradition. No single person or group holds the “correct” perspective on a certain event or period of time. Thus, there is not a single, perfectly seamless telling of the Joseph story that won out – instead, two different narratives are presented together as one.
This idea of multiple perspectives holds true at camp, as well. Campers and staff members have a wide range of hometowns, interests, educational and religious experiences, and family traditions. No one background is valued more than others. It is this diversity of experiences that helps makes Jewish learning and practice at camp so interesting, engaging, and dynamic. The Ramah Wisconsin story is a collection of all of these individuals – a story that, like the Joseph narratives, draws its resonance from its messiness. May we all continue not only to bring memories from camp home with us, but to also bring our unique stories and traditions up to camp each summer.