Parashat Vayeshev begins the story of Joseph. In the four final parshiyot of the book of Bereshit, we will read how Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, how his God-given ability to interpret dreams brings him to the attention of Pharaoh and eventually leads to his appointment as viceroy of Egypt, responsible for providing food for the Egyptians and their neighbors during a seven-year famine, and how Joseph’s position in Egypt will ultimately cause his family to settle there, leading to the events in the book of Shemot (Exodus).
After Joseph is brought to Egypt and sold as a slave to Potiphar, the Torah says, “The Lord was with Joseph … and his master saw that the Lord was with him.” But why would the Torah need to tell us that God was with Joseph? Shouldn’t it be obvious that God was with all of our patriarchs and matriarchs? And so, the Rabbis try to understand what additional information is being conveyed here.
We find this in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, “Rav Huna interpreted in Rabbi Aha’s name: Joseph whispered God’s name whenever he came in and whenever he went out.” According to one of my colleagues, the operative word here is “whispered.” Joseph didn’t preach, but kept quiet about his religion. He chose to teach about God through deeds rather than words.
But Rashi says, “‘The Lord was with him’ means that the name of God was frequent in his mouth.” That is, Joseph spoke about God all the time, causing those around him to think about God, morality, and mitzvot.
Did Joseph whisper God’s name or proclaim it openly?
Shortly after I became the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Lancaster, Pa., in 1992, the synagogue was vandalized. We arrived for Shabbat morning services to find a six-foot swastika painted across the front doors. Some members wanted to call the police immediately and clean away the ugly symbol. I said we would do so, but first we would hold our service and we would wait until after Shabbat to do any cleaning. Later that afternoon a member with a background in PR notified the local media. As a result, the synagogue vandalism was the front-page story in the Sunday paper.
The next day a representative of the area Jewish community relations organization told me that their recommendation was to refrain from publicizing such incidents in order to deny attention to the anti-Semites. However, the publicity had a positive effect. The response from the Lancaster community was heartwarming. Local elected officials, Christian clergy, and neighborhood residents showed up on Tuesday morning to help us clean off the paint and some made donations. A young mother who lived down the block brought her toddler son and asked if he could help so that he would learn that such hateful behavior was wrong. The front page of the next day’s paper carried the story with pictures of non-Jewish neighbors with rags and cleaning solution.
Did Joseph whisper God’s name or proclaim it openly? Either interpretation is plausible. More than that, both approaches have their place. Sometimes it is best to speak up; sometimes our quiet actions speak louder than words. Wisdom is knowing the best approach to take in each situation we face.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.