The Secret Meaning Behind Joseph's Name
Joseph's Name: Unraveling The Chiasm
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Parshat Vayeitzei, Jacob sets off from home and begins to build his family, the future 12 Tribes of Israel. But while his wife Leah gives birth to child after child, his other wife Rachel remains barren for many years. Finally, Rachel gives birth to a son, whom she names Joseph, because, as she puts it, “ God has gathered in assaf, my shame.”
And we all understand what she means. For so many years, she’s been watching from the sidelines as her sister has risen to become the matriarch of this great family. This must have been a painful and agonizing experience. It’s no wonder she would have felt shame.
But what if this wasn’t what she was referring to in naming Joseph? What if the shame she experienced was actually from another event, a crisis that finally got resolved in this moment?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he uncovers a dizzying number of textual parallels that reveal a chiasm running through this entire parsha. The hidden structure behind these verses shows us a whole new way to understand the story of Jacob’s journey from his parents’ home to the house of Lavan, and helps us understand Rachel’s own difficult journey... Come see it for yourself!
I want to reintroduce to you a fascinating tool that you can use to analyze biblical texts: Chiastic structure, or what you might call in Hebrew, an atbash structure.
An atbash structure works like this. There is a text that is structured in such a way that the first element mirrors the last element, and the second to first element, mirrors the second to last element, etc., all converging towards the center.
The reason why it is called an atbash is because Aleph is the first letter of the alphabet, Tav is the last, Bet is the second letter of the alphabet, Shin is the second to last.
An atbash structure can do a lot of things; it can find a center of the gravity around which a whole series of ideas seems to revolve around.
But Chiastic structure can do something else, too. There is a whole world of meaning to be gleaned from how the pairs in the atbash structure match up. It may well be that one of these elements sheds light on the other, that the match between them is a kind of commentary as it were, that's inlaid in the Torah. To really understand what's happening on one side of the Chiastic structure, you have to understand what's happening on the other side.
I'd like to demonstrate that to you with a fantastically elegant chiasm that occurs right here in Parshat Vayeitzei.
A Chiastic Commentary on Parshat Vayeitzei
Let's look at five elements that happen right at the beginning of the Parsha:
- ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע וילך חרנה – "Jacob leaves Be'er Sheva, and he goes to Charan."
- ויפגע במקום – "and he encounters this place where he sleeps."
- In this dream that he has, והנה מלאכי אלוקים עולים ויורדים בו – "there are these angels going up and down this ladder."
- Yaakov wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes the significance of the place. He says, מה נורא המקום הזה – "this is just an astounding place" – אין זה כי אם בית אלקים – "this place is a house of God;" and then,
- ויקרא את שם המקום ההוא בית קל – "He names the place the House of God" because he understands that that's its significance.
So those are the five elements that begin this story.
Now, let me ask you a question. Where else do we see a mirroring image of those exact same five elements? Well, these five happen at the very beginning of Vayeitzei.
Look at the very end of Vayeitzei. Yaakov is leaving Lavan's house, his father-in-law's house. ויעקב הלך לדרכו – "Yaakov on the way" again. ויפגעו בו מלאכי אלוקים – "he encountered angels."
The first time we have vayifga in the Book of Genesis, is right there at the beginning of Vayeitzei. The second and last time you have that in the Book of Genesis is right here, ויפגעו בו מלאכי אלוקים. And then, as if on cue, Yaakov said, as he saw these angels,מחנה אלוקים זה – "it's a camp of God here." And he names the place after its significance. He calls it Machanayim, which means "camps."
So it all matches up. It's also almost as if these two sets of five elements are sort of illuminating each other because there are subtle differences, too.
Uncovering Vayeitzei's Meaning in the Chiasm
For example, the first time Yaakov goes, he is running away, almost against his will, from his brother. The second time Yaakov is going, he is going ledarko, going on his way. What an interesting phrase. I can't say for sure what it means. But it might connote that he is not going reactively, forced to run away from his brother, he is going on his way, proactively to meet his brother and to see if he can reconcile with him.
The first time around, he encountered a place and there were angels but he was traveling horizontally, the angels were traveling vertically, up and down the ladder; they didn't even take notice of him. But the second time around, the angels are traveling horizontally; they do take notice of him. The angels are coming to greet him.
Let's go on. If this were a true chiasm, then the next element that you'd see at the beginning of Vayeitzei, should parallel an event at the end of Vayeitzei, but just a little bit earlier.
So back to the beginning of Vayeitzei. After Jacob has this dream with the angels going up and down the ladder, he takes this rock he's been sleeping on, ויקח את האבן אשר שם מראשתיו וישם אתה מצבה "and he makes it a monument." Well, that's the first matzevah, monument, ever made in the Book of Genesis.
What's the second monument made? Well, look at that. In the end of Vayeitzei, right before Yaakov leaves Lavan's household to go meet up with his brother and encounter those angels, ויקח יעקב אבן "Yaakov takes the stone one more time" וירמה מצבה "and he makes another monument" – this time, to memorialize his final meeting with his father-in-law, Lavan.
One matzevah memorializes his encounter with his heavenly father, another matzevah memorializes an encounter with an earthly father-in-law.
The next thing that happens at the beginning of Vayeitzei is that Jacob makes a promise, וכל אשר תתן לי עשר אעשרנו לך "God, anything that you give me, I will give you a tenth."
What happens the last time Jacob leaves his earthly father? There is another negotiation involving tens. It's right at the end of Vayeitzei, right before Jacob encounters those angels who come to greet him, and right before Jacob sets up that matzevah to mark his encounter with his father-in-law Lavan.
Jacob negotiates in anger with his father-in-law. He complains to him, ותחלף את משכרתי עשרת מנים "you promised me wages but you changed those wages 10 times."
What's the next thing that happens at the beginning of Vayeitzei? Yaakov heads off again and he gets to Charan and he encounters three flocks of sheep. Well, that's the first time we ever meet an eder, a flock of tzoan, sheep. When is the only other time we meet an eder of sheep? Right where you expect it to be. Right before he complained about changing wages 10 times.
Yaakov had taken flocks of sheep from Lavan's flock and put them aside וישת לו עדרים לבדו. There is the other occurrence of eder. Three is associated with that, too. The first time around there were three flocks; here there were three days' travel between Yaakov's flocks and Lavan's flocks. וישם דרך שלשת ימים בינו ובין יעקב.
Next thing that happens, Yaakov encounters Lavan and Lavan wants to know how much is Yaakov willing to work for,ויאמר לבן ליעקב הגידה לי מה משכרתך"– "tell me, what are going to be your wages?"
It turns out that there is another time that Lavan asks Yaakov what are to be your wages, and that's right where it should be. ויאמר נקבה שכרך עלי ואתנה "name your wages", Lavan says, "and I will give them."
Isn't it interesting that, the first time around, the wage that Yaakov named wasn't actually monetary at all. He asked him for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Listen to Lavan's language the second time around. The word for "name your price", nakvah, sure sounds a lot like the word nekevah, "female." The first part of the chiasim is present in the second of the chiasm.
And now, back to the beginning of the Vayeitzei and the next thing that happens: ויאמר יעקב אל לבן "and Jacob said to Lavan," הבה את אשתי "please, give me my wife." כי מלאו ימי "I have finished working for you. I would like the hand of your daughter in marriage."
When else does Yaakov ask for Lavan's daughter? Look at the next earlier event.
תנה את נשי He says as he is ready to go, "Please give me my wives," your daughters. ואת ילדי "But now there are children, too." Give me their children. אשר עבדתי אתך בהן "I worked for you for these."
Let me show you what I think is, perhaps, one of the most astounding pieces of this, the very next chiastic pair.
Vayeitzei's Chiastic Center: The Meaning of Joseph's Name in the Bible
When Rachel finally gives birth, she names him Yosef, coming from the word asaf. אסף אלוקים את כרםתי "God has gathered in my shame."
Why would Rachel feel this great sense of shame that God, "you've finally gathered in my shame"? I think most of us would say, if we're just reading her story, Yaakov has two wives, Leah and Rachel. Leah had all these children, one after the other. And Rachel was barren. It feels terrible.
So her sense of shame is that she has been barren all this time and finally God has given her this child. But the chiasm teaches you, her sense of shame has come from somewhere else entirely.
Keep on reading the beginning of Vayeitzei. What's the very next thing that happens?
ויאסף לבן את כל אנשי הםקום ויעש משתה – Yaakov asked for the hand of Rachel in marriage. Lavan prepares the wedding. He gathers, asaf, all the town folks for a great celebration. That's the first time the word asaf is used in the Yaakov and Lavan story. Rachel names her child "for God having gathered in her sense of shame." What shame? Well, when is the first time she felt this sense of shame?
It was that night that her father gathered all the invitees, all the townsfolks, made a huge bash to celebrate the wedding of his daughter that was supposed to be Rachel – but where was she? She was off in a side room while everyone danced, not knowing that it was Leah, that Rachel wasn't there at all. It was supposed to be her wedding and she was all alone with her shame.
Her father had treated her as no woman has a right to be treated by her father. Along came her heavenly father and gave her a gift that no woman in her situation could ever even rightfully hoped for. To be infertile for so long, and then God, your heavenly Father, presents you with a child. אסף אלוקים את חרפתי "God has gathered in my shame."
My own father may have betrayed me, but that betrayal is redeemed now by the grace of my heavenly Father who loves me more than I can imagine, and hence the redemptive name – Yosef.
There is far more to this chiasm than I have been able to show you in these short minutes, but I invite you to continue exploring how far, in each direction, does it go. What is its center?
I invite you to look at our course, 'What does it mean to be the Children of Israel.' [Renamed: Jacob: Man of Truth, Part III]. Have a wonderful Shabbat.