This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the narrative of Joseph and his brothers and contains some of the most dramatic episodes in the Torah. Vayeshev opens with rivalry between Joseph and ten of Jacob’s other sons over Jacob’s apparent favoritism of Joseph and Joseph’s slander of his half-brothers to his father. The situation is exacerbated by Joseph’s prophetic dreams of grandeur, which he relates to his brothers and Jacob. Subsequently, the ten brothers throw Joseph into a pit, then later sell him as a slave to passing merchants and mislead Jacob into believing in Joseph’s death by wild beast. Jacob spends the next twenty-two years mourning for his son until learning (in two Torah portions from now) that Joseph is actually still alive.
One can only imagine Joseph’s emotional agony and fear. He may seem immature, but the Torah gives his age at the time of his kidnapping and sale at 17. Joseph was an orphan, having lost his mother, Rachel, as a child, and given the fact that Joseph ended up alone with his brothers because his Jacob had sent him to them, he may have also wondered whether he had been disowned by his father. He was especially close with those brothers who were derided by the rest for their mother’s lesser social status (37:2), but there is no indication that their participation in his enslavement was anything less than full. While the ten brothers later relate their guilt at having ignored Joseph’s pleas for mercy (42:21), Joseph, of course, had no way of knowing that any of his family would know about or care for his loss when he was taken hundreds of miles away.
Joseph’s situation seems hopeless and debilitating at this point. However, a small detail in the narrative allows for Joseph to hope for a better future and serves as a harbinger of his later success:
“They [the brothers] took him [Joseph] and cast him into the pit…and they sat to eat a meal, they lifted their eyes and behold! they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites was traveling from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices, balm and lotus…” (37:24-25)
Why does the Torah take a break from this dramatic story to describe the traders’ wares? Why does it matter? It doesn’t make any tangible difference to Joseph’s fate.
Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) makes much of this question and quotes a rabbinic commentary to answer it. Essentially, Rashi writes, the cargo might not seem significant, but the usual wares on that route to Egypt were tar and pitch, which (as anyone who has driven by a construction site can testify) smell acrid and unpleasant. God arranged for those unknown traders to carry spices so that as Joseph rode far from home to an unknown fate, he at least would be accompanied by pleasant aromas, rather than harsh odors.
Joseph may not have recognized this unusual circumstance immediately; after all, he was probably occupied with more emotional concerns. But after the shock and grief wore off, perhaps he realized that God, at least, had not abandoned him. The Torah later describes that “God was with Joseph and he was a successful man…and his master saw God was with him and all that [Joseph] did, God made successful.” (39:2-3) Joseph repeatedly attributes his success to God, whether when conversing with ordinary Egyptians or Pharaoh.
Joseph’s situation is an extreme example of faith through adversity, but it’s also a lesson in finding the good in a bad place. It may not be easy to appreciate the presence of cinnamon in place of tar, but the small differences can lift one’s spirit and realize that no one is alone.
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.