kosher bookworm

The legacy of Yosef. Was he on the spectrum?


This week’s Torah reading, Vayigash, reflects the narrative of the reconciliation of Yosef and his brothers, and the reunion with his father, Yaakov. There is much to be said of this saga. One very timely book on this biblical legacy is “Was Yosef On The Spectrum? Understanding Yosef Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources” (Urim Publications, 2018) by Prof. Samuel Levine.

In his introduction Dr. Levine, director of the Touro Law Center in Central Islip, tells us the following:

“The story of Yosef presents some of the most challenging questions of all biblical narratives. … Leading commentators are repeatedly puzzled both by Yosef’s actions and by the events that surround him: from Yosef’s bitter interchanges with his brothers which his father Yaakov is apparently unable to mediate, to the events in the Land of Egypt where Yosef finds both failure and remarkable success.”

The author’s narrative throughout the rest of this book follows through on this theme of Yosef’s experiences and of how his family conducted themselves in reaction to the varied events they experienced.

One telling response to this book’s narrative was by the distinguished talmid chacham Rav Menachem Mendel Blachman, senior Ra’m at Yeshiva Keren B’Yavneh, who tells us the following:

“Sam Levine was my student in yeshiva, and I have known him for decades as he has continued to study and teach Jewish law. I enjoyed his book on Yosef, which presents a thoughtful and creative literary analysis of the story, based on a close reading of the Chumash, midrashim, and classical meforshim.”

To this approbation, I wish to bring to your learned attention the last section of this study. It tells it all, in the author’s words, about my own opinion of his work:

“And Yosef said to them, ‘Do not fear . . . though you have intended to do me harm, G-d has intended it for good … to allow a large nation to live. And now, do not fear, I will provide for you and your children.’ And he consoled them and spoke to their heart.

“Yosef’s thoughtful, gracious, and heartfelt response to his brothers, concluding this episode — and with it, concluding the story of Yosef — may offer a message of optimism for individuals on the spectrum, their families, and their friends. When Yosef’s brothers tell him of Yaakov’s supposed command that he not take revenge against them, Yosef explains that he has come to terms with what they did, that although they intended to cause him harm, it was all part of G-d’s plan for their success. He assures them that they have no reason to fear, and that he will continue to provide for them and for their children.

“Though Yosef has previously spoken to his brothers in this way, likewise in an effort to alleviate their guilt and fears, in the past his words have proven less than fully effective, in part because of his seemingly self-serving and self-referential tone.

“This time, however, the interaction between Yosef and his brothers is different, because now Yosef is different. Following the quotation of Yosef’s words to his brothers, the verse concludes with the declaration that Yosef ‘consoled them and spoke to their heart.’ The text — perhaps tellingly and, in this reading, fittingly — does not convey the content of Yosef’s final words, as the content is not really important.

“More significantly, the verse emphasizes, Yosef has indeed learned to overcome his condition, to let go of past insults and indignities, to understand others, including his peers, and to talk to them in a manner that shows he relates to them. Yosef now has the ability to speak to his brothers in a way that can have a real effect on their feelings — finally comforting them — because he now has the ability to see their perspective and to touch their heart. This is now the true Yosef, outside of the trappings of the persona of Tzafnat Pane’ach, outside of the protective watch of either Pharaoh or Yaakov, truly reconciled with his brothers.

“At the conclusion of the story, the reconciliation is complete. Yosef has the confidence to put his trust in his brothers to insure that he is buried in the land that was promised to their fathers.”

Hopefully, after considering the above, you will have the opportunity to read this book and come to better understand the deeper meaning of Yosef’s legacy.

A version of this column was published in 2018.