Vayeshev: Reading Faces

Joseph’s artless eyes
scan his mother’s features, seeking
to decipher what’s depicted there.

Rachel’s pain-filled eyes are closed,
her face recedes in darkness:
the insight fades away.

Cloistered in his rainbow mantle,
living in a world of dreams,
Joseph never learns the signs.

The hostility eludes him:
the angry looks which blaze
from his brothers’ jealous eyes.

Through years of swift reversal –
searching faces, reading cues,
at last he understands.

Joseph heeds his fellow prisoners,
marks their troubled eyes, and asks
“Why are your faces downcast?”


The question is asked why Joseph regaled his brothers with his dreams of glory, which only served to inflame their jealousy. Sforno* comments that he was too young and naïve to anticipate their reaction. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees Joseph as a lonely boy who missed out on the influence of a mother.
Rashi comments on the phrase, “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons for he was a child of his old age…” that it means that Joseph was a wise son. In her book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Dr Avivah Zornberg posits that Joseph is “a child prodigy, prematurely knowledgeable, devastatingly unaware.” She points out that he behaves with “the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others.” Dr Zornberg notes his growing wisdom as he becomes sensitive to people’s faces and their expressions. Years later, the adversity that he has endured has matured him to the point where, encountering Pharaoh’s imprisoned butler and baker after they have had their disturbing dreams, he asks them why they look so troubled.

*Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno was an Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician. He was born at Cesena about 1475 and died at Bologna in1550. He was a prolific writer, chiefly in the field of Biblical exegesis. His commentary is notable for his respect for the literal meaning of the text and his reluctance to entertain mystical interpretations.

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