An Ishbitz-Radzyn Reading of the Joseph Narrative: The Light of Reason and the Flaw of Perfection

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Batya Hefter

A few decades ago, one would have had a hard time locating a copy of the main works of Ishbitz-Radzyn Hasidut: the Mei Ha-Shiloah, by the founder of the dynasty, R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner (b. 1800), and the Beit Ya’akov, by his son and heir, R. Ya’akov Leiner (b. 1818). Today these books can be found in many local Jewish book shops and are taught and studied in batei midrash throughout the Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi communities. The reasons for the current surge in popularity of these Hasidic masters vary, but certainly their surprisingly modern insights into human psychology, their commitment to introspection and personal refinement, and their focus inward when it comes to the performance of mitzvot and Torah learning resonate deeply with contemporary readers. Furthermore, their creative rereading of the biblical text, casting the familiar figures as paradigms for spiritual growth, offers today’s students a fresh and innovative parshanut on the Torah as well as a personal path to avodat Hashem, religious service.[1]

Among their most well-known and compelling interpretations are of the Joseph and Judah narratives at the end of Sefer Bereishit. By focusing on the unique character traits (middot) of these figures, their flaws and their eventual repair, the reading of the Ishbitz-Radzyn Masters highlights the essential process of introspection and self scrutiny known in Ishbitz-Radzyn terminology as Berur, refinement.[2]

Underlying the Ishbitz-Radzyn reading of these chapters is the assertion that,

These two tribes represent the entire Jewish People. Some people identify with the character trait of Joseph and others identify with the character trait of Judah… (Beit Ya’akov, Vayeshev 17, see also Mei Ha-Shiloah Vayeshev)

The dominant traits that the Masters identify in each brother reflect two opposing approaches to life and two different paths to serve God.

In this piece we will focus on Joseph’s path.

Joseph’s Main Character Trait: Light of Reason (Ohr Ha-da’at)

Based on the biblical narrative and the midrashic and kabbalistic traditions, the Hasidic reading paints a vivid portrait of Joseph. Whether faced with the advances of Potiphar’s wife, or the numerous times when, as viceroy, he nearly reveals himself to his brothers, Joseph emerges as a figure with extreme self-control; someone who “refuses” (va-yimaein, Genesis 39:8) and “refrains” (va-yitapak, Genesis 43:31), and acts from a place of extreme caution. Even his interaction with the brothers in his youth can be recast to illustrate his meticulous, exacting nature. While Jacob favored the handsome son of his beloved wife, the brothers were a different story. They saw Joseph as a spoiled child, a tattletale who “brought bad reports of them to their father” (Genesis 37:2). They were jealous and despised him for his dreams of grandeur and his delusions of superiority.

Joseph can certainly be seen as an immature, self-centered adolescent who lords his privileged status over his siblings. But based on the midrash, the Ba’alei Tosafot imaginatively set the scene against the backdrop of halakhic debates. When the brothers would get into disputes about legal matters, the Tosafists suggest, Joseph always took the hard line. He clung to absolute principles and would never rely on a lenient position.[3] Just as he demanded of himself meticulous restraint, he held everyone else to the same high standard. Uncompromising, Joseph expected everyone to maintain the same strict conduct and could tolerate no wrongdoing.

In R Ya’akov Leiner’s words, “He did not engage in actions unless they were completely thought-out and evaluated at the moment they were being performed; he would not rely on actions turning out for the best, after the fact.”[4]

This mode of behavior, the trait referred to by R Ya’akov as ohr ha-da’at, the ‘light of reason’, is the primary characteristic that, in Jacob’s eyes, justified his favoring Joseph over his brothers; a trait that Jacob himself could relate to as well.

R. Ya’akov offers us a glimpse into Jacob’s thoughts:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, blessed humanity with da’at, conscious knowledge, and a person’s life should always be conducted with the ‘light of reason’. Thus, one who acts according to the ‘light of reason’ – is greater than his brother. And so, just as the Holy One Blessed be He chose me over my brother Esau, because Esau indulges without conscious restraint, … whereas I control myself and refine my actions by the ‘light of reason’, so too, Joseph has more ‘consciousness’ and ‘light’ than his brothers…[5]

Because Jacob identifies with this mode of “conscious restraint” and control, he favors Joseph and foresees his potential greatness.

This same trait is evident again when Joseph is tempted by Potiphar’s wife.

The Talmud tells us that just at the moment Joseph’s passion is aroused, the image of Jacob appeared to him in the window. About to lose his honor, the gaze of his revered father gripped him with fear, ‘cooled his blood,’[6] and restored his rational mind. His ohr ha-da’at, briefly eclipsed, is regained.

Casting Jacob in this midrash as a symbol for God,[7] R. Ya’akov connects Joseph’s extraordinary ability to control his sexual passion and his ability to bring God into his consciousness. Yirah, the fear of God, the fear of sinning against God, is the principle guiding Joseph’s disciplined behavior.

Joseph conquers his desire through the strength of his will. For this he comes to be known in Rabbinic literature and onward as Joseph the Tzaddik, Joseph the righteous. By living righteously and avoiding any questionable actions, Joseph, like many who pursue these virtues, demonstrates a quest for perfection and meticulousness which others are drawn to, and trust. These qualities aren’t just internal; they manifest externally as well, in an innate competence that’s apparent to all. Such people whose inner virtue and outer appearance align, possess a charisma which easily attracts those around them.

In Potiphar’s house, and later when he becomes the viceroy of Egypt, these assets of Joseph’s character take center stage. Everyone, it seems, aside from his brothers, is dazzled by Joseph, both for his good looks and for his obvious talents and executive abilities. Potiphar, the warden of the prison, and finally Pharaoh all recognize his intrinsic ‘hen’ – his charm and integrity, as well as his ability to successfully manage and produce. He is the only Biblical character referred to (and more than once) as a ‘successful man’ (Genesis 39:2,4,5). His evident success leads the Bible to affirm that Joseph’s natural skills and talents are divine gifts.[8]

It is specifically his use of reason, his ohr ha-da’at, which allows him to rise to the heights he does and become the one whom all of Egypt and beyond depends upon for sustenance. Joseph finds himself in the position of literally granting life to others because he knows how to be discerning; he knows when it is appropriate to withhold and when it is appropriate to give.[9]

In R. Ya’akov’s thought, this path of ‘yirah, which is acquired through restraint’, through withholding, is an essential step in divine service. Yirah, furthermore, is aligned with Elo-him, the divine name of God which we experience as law, judgment, awe, and restraint. This attribute is essential, for without it there could be no creation, no civilization, no boundaries, no order, and no justice.

But as with any middah, it is but a portion, a measure of divinity. [10] It reflects only one way of being in the world, one avenue of divine service. Joseph knows no other path. But as we will see, according to Ishbitz-Radzyn tradition, the very claim of exclusivity is itself an indication of imperfection and defect.[11]

Joseph’s Main Character Flaw: The Flaw of Perfection
Joseph “…internalized the qualities of fear and humility to ensure that he (serves God) with certainty…”[12]

As the masters of Ishbitz-Radzyn see it, however, Joseph needs to learn that living with such extreme caution and intense self-restraint, despite all its positive aspects, doesn’t allow one to engage fully in life.

In Rabbi Mordechai Yosef’s words, “As long as a person exists in his body, one cannot conduct oneself with such great caution and yirah.” God, “desires human activity,” he continues. We are meant to be involved, to play a role, to actively participate in this world, even if that means sometimes making a mistake, and engaging in behavior that ”is not entirely refined” (Mei Ha-Shiloah I, Vayeshev s.v. vayeshev).

Real life is unpredictable, uncontrollable, messy, and often involves taking risks, even failing. Being human requires relying on the heart, using intuition and entering into the unknown and trust that somehow, even in those confusing places, God is there. To know that God can be found beyond the limitations of one’s rational mind, one’s ohr ha-da’at, that is a sensibility that Joseph does not have. Joseph’s berur, his self-refinement, will come about when he learns to let go, “and place his trust in God as well” (Mei Ha-Shiloah I, Vayeshev s.v. vayeshev).

How will Joseph come to internalize this message?

To engage fully in life, to ‘place his trust in God’, Joseph will have to live through moments that he cannot control and must encounter God in those places.

Joseph’s berur begins at a particularly low point in his life. For the second time, Joseph finds himself thrown into a pit. This time it is not a pit of earth in a remote field, but a dank dungeon in Egypt. Joseph will learn a deep truth about himself in this dark and lonely place. Here in the pit, there are no distractions, no one to remember him, and no one to shield him from self-knowledge, from facing the hidden parts of his soul. But even here, it will take time until he is stripped of his influence and his charisma, and finally left alone in the darkness in silence with no one to face but himself.

It will be here, in the dungeon that God will show Joseph his flaw.

A Lesson for Joseph: The Dreams of the Baker and the Steward
In a narrative that revolves around dreams, it may come as no surprise that the lesson comes by way of dreams. R. Mordechai Joseph states, ‘’All matters of this world are like a dream to be interpreted. The way a person interprets these details will determine the outcome.’[13]

God, he suggests, communicates with all of humanity through the events in our lives. Whether or not we ‘get the message’ depends on how we interpret those events.

The dreams of the steward and the baker are told at great length. What are they doing here? What do we learn from such extended descriptions of these Egyptian servants, seemingly minor characters in the biblical story?

The well-known midrash supplies the background for their imprisonment that is absent in the biblical narrative.

According to the midrash, Pharaoh’s steward ended up in jail because as he was placing the wine goblet in Pharaoh’s hand, a fly flew into the cup. The baker, on the other hand, was punished because a pebble was found in Pharaoh’s bread. In the end, just as Joseph predicts, the steward is reinstated whereas the baker is hanged for his crimes, and these two minor characters exit the stage. [14]

R. Mordechai Joseph teaches that there is a deeper meaning to this midrashic narrative. Reinterpreting this lengthy, seemingly mundane narrative, he suggests that these dreams are in fact the subtle way that God communicates with Joseph, imparting to him vital information about himself. To teach him his own deficiencies, God, “showed him through the narrative of the baker and the steward.”[15] If Joseph can attune himself to God’s hidden messages, he will do far more than merely interpret the dreams of his cellmates.

“Every king has two ministers, a baker and a steward…” begins R. Mordechai Joseph. In other words, there are two different paths to serve God, two ways to approach the world; one is like the baker and one like the steward:

… the baker, for whom a pebble was found in the bread, he is guilty since a pebble is not a living thing and he could have prevented the outcome…

The baker symbolizes a life lived by severe judgement, middat ha-din, where one’s meticulous attention would never miss even the smallest pebble.[16] Joseph’s encounter with the baker is intended to prod him to realize that his way of reaching for total control, depending on absolute principles, is too rigid.

Approaching life in this way is unforgiving, it allows for no imperfection. To treat every aspect of life as a pebble, a cold, inanimate object that one can hold, analyse, measure, and control, is not human. In such a life one is dispassionately held responsible for everything; there is no compassion, no excuses, no second chances, and no forgiveness. If a stone falls into your dough, you are held accountable because you could have been more cautious. Joseph’s way of being, God is hinting, is like the baker, attempting to live life by an unattainable standard, “to perceive how every action is aligned with strict law and not to budge from that position.”[17] This unforgiving level to which he held himself and his brothers was likely what caused them, in their youth, to throw him into a pit. [18]

Joseph, in this image, is aligned exclusively with the law. Law is obviously vital for order, for civilized life, but we imperfect human beings are often thrust into the unknown, and we require compassion and forgiveness. This broader attitude is reflected by the steward.

… and in truth, it is not appropriate to punish the steward if you find a fly in the cup, since what could he do? The fly is a living thing, and it is not possible to guarantee that … a fly will not enter the cup…

The fly symbolizes the unknown. A fly is alive, organic, unexpected and uncontrollable. Surely for such a crime as a fly falling into the wine cup, one should be forgiven.

Through the veiled medium of the dreams, Joseph is shown that serving God exclusively through yirah, like the baker, must give way to make room for imperfection and uncertainty, like the steward and his fly. That is the fertile environment for compassion and forgiveness.

Does Joseph, the interpreter of dreams, succeed in deciphering these dreams beyond the surface and grasp their deeper personal message?

Joseph’s Clarification- Berur: Leaving Room for God.  
         And it came to pass at the end of two full years… (Gen.41:1).

According to the midrash,

It is written, ‘He set an end to darkness’ (Job 28:3). A definite period was set for the world to spend in darkness… [another explanation:] ‘He set an end to darkness’; a definite number of years was fixed for Joseph to spend in prison.’ (Genesis Rabbah 89:1)

The midrash compares the chaotic darkness prior to Creation to those unsettling, anxious years Joseph spent in prison prior to his release. But, adds the midrash, this too is intended, part of God’s plan. What appears as darkness to human beings is part of the necessary yet mostly unwanted, and misunderstood process.[19] On the one hand, ‘setting an end to the darkness’ indicates that chaos and misery must come to an end, but it also attests to the indispensable value of the darkness; something essential must happen in there. Darkness, absence, the experience of non-being, is a prerequisite for human creativity, as it was for God’s creation of the world.[20] Here it is a prerequisite for Joseph to redefine himself as he rises to become a genuine leader.

Joseph’s vital way of being, as we have seen, is oriented towards ‘din’, the law, a world shaped by logic, structure, and order. But here, left in the darkness, forgotten, cold, dreamless, his rational skills are impotent to make sense of his life or to save him. In prison, he is forced to realize that events around him and within his life cannot be controlled solely by his rational mind, by ohr ha-da’at. Could it be that there is another path, another way to know God?

As darkness and anxiety erode Joseph’s rational sensibility, they also make room for humility, compassion, and forgiveness — including forgiveness for himself and for what he cannot understand.

Unconscious thoughts push themselves to the fore. Perhaps for the first time, Joseph is forced to consider why his brothers hated him, and what he might have done to cause them to hate him. Perhaps here in the darkness, he begins to forgive himself for his one-sidedness, for his own self-imposed rigidity. And perhaps here, finally in the darkness, his heart begins to forgive them, for their hostility towards him.

Joseph comes to understand that for life to be sustained, there must be forgiveness. And forgiveness is integrally linked with the awareness and acceptance of human imperfection, including one’s own. Joseph comes to know that life cannot be perfectly orchestrated and fully planned out.

Like most people, Joseph does not suddenly become a changed man. He continues to lead his life and interact with others primarily through his specific lens of yirah and ohr ha-da’at.

However, while he understands his dreams to be a divine map, from which he cannot veer, he does eventually learn to read that map less rigidly.

A subtle indication that Joseph’s certainty has softened, that he ‘places his trust in God’, can be seen in his views regarding his interpretive skills. When he is finally released from prison, sent to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he insists: “it is not me. God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16). Humbled by his experience, Joseph has become more insightful. Gone is the presumptuous tone of his declaration to his fellow prisoners, that although “Interpretations are God’s business, tell them to me” (Genesis 40:8), suggesting that he is a middleman for God and possesses a direct channel.

Throughout his life, Joseph will be given reminders that he cannot make sense of all aspects of life.

But does Joseph ever really internalize that his path is not the only way to experience God in our lives?

Joseph’s Repair: Forging the Impasse
Moments of breakthrough do occur where we see that Joseph loosens his grip and leaves some room to “place his trust in God…” At the most dramatic point in the narrative, one brother steps in and penetrates past Joseph’s facade, disarming him and reaching the depths of Joseph’s heart. Upon hearing Judah’s passionate plea, suddenly, “Joseph cannot hold in his emotions” (Genesis 45:1). Unprepared, overcome by a surge of deep compassion for his brothers, Joseph is overwhelmed by Judah, and in an instant his elaborate ruse comes crumbling down.[21] Surrendering all semblance of control, he dismisses his servants and openly weeps as he reveals himself to his brothers.

This is a first chink in the armor. Yet the culmination of Joseph’s berur, his spiritual completion, comes only many years later, when the brothers prostrate themselves before him after their father’s death. At an earlier stage in his life, this act would have looked like the fulfillment of all his childhood dreams, as if the ‘divine map’ that he had imagined and meticulously followed was finally coming true. Now, however, it is the last thing Joseph wants.

Now Joseph deeply wants his brothers to believe that he has forgiven them. He wants them to see that he now knows that life includes error, failure, and forgiveness. But sadly, his brothers do not trust him. It is out of fear that they all bow down now before him.[22] Hit by this blow of alienation, Joseph again openly weeps. At last, with true self-awareness and affection, he echoes his father’s words (spoken long ago to his mother Rachel), “Am I in the place of God?!” (Genesis 50:19). Perhaps, in former days, Joseph would have been tempted by the words of the serpent in Eden, “For you will be like God…” (Genesis 3:5). Those words continue to seduce humanity into believing that their intellectual competence can compete with or even replace God. In his youth, Joseph may have entertained such a fantasy of autonomy, believing that God had endowed him with preeminence. But not now, Joseph has changed.

Now, he desperately wants his brothers to believe that he is not the same measuring, unforgiving youth, the one who sits on his distant throne and sees only through the cold lens of strict justice, din. He has finally softened, he has forgiven.

He is Joseph, their brother.

[1] This article is a modified version of a chapter of my forthcoming book, Opening the Window: Hasidic Reading for Life – The Teachings of Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner of Ishbitz-Radzyn (1818 – 1878). My deep appreciation to my dear friends and chevrutot Judy Taubes Sterman for helping me edit this article and for her invaluable support in elucidating Ishbitz-Radzyn ideas for a broader audience and Professor Ora Wiskind for her encouragement and inspiration in fleshing out their delicate thought. I also thank Lehrhaus editor Davida Kollmar for her sharp eye and thoughtful edits. 

[2] In Ishbitz-Radzyn thought the religious ideal is to fulfil God’s will, which requires a person to be completely mevurar, (spiritually and ethically refined) in order to attain a state of illuminated clarity, which reflects God’s will at that moment. This process of refinement involves the removal of the ego which functions as a barrier between one’s self- interest and the Divine Will. To do an action which is not entirely refined (mevurar) means to act despite not being certain that an action is God’s will. For a more detailed description of the masters’ theology of berur and its implications, see Morris Faierstein, All is in the Hands of Heaven: The Teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica, ch. 4; Aviezer Cohen, Self-Consciousness in Mei Ha-Shiloah as the Nexus Between God and Man (PhD dissertation – Hebrew) ch. III, “Avodat Haberur – Self-Awareness as a Path for Change.”

[3] Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg, Patterns in Rashi, (Targum, 2003) 94. Ba’alei Tosafot were twelfth and thirteenth century commentators to the Talmud.

[4] Beit Ya’akov, Vayeshev, 12.

[5] Beit Ya’akov, Vayeshev, 18, s.v. ve-yisrael ahav et yosef mi-kol banav.

[6] Genesis 39:12; Talmud Bavli, Sotah 36b; Genesis Rabbah, Vayeshev 38.

[7] Beit Ya’akov, Vaera 29.

[8] Genesis 39:2,4,5.

[9] In the kabbalistic tradition Joseph represents the sefirah, the divine aspect, of yesod, literally ‘foundation’, suggesting that he becomes a channel for sustenance.

[10] It is significant that the word ‘middah’ in Hebrew means both character trait and measurement, indicating that any character trait is but a portion of the broader picture. Beit Ya’akov, Vayehi 6, s.v. ‘ke kol inyan… “A middah – trait is actually only a vessel, in truth it contains nothing essential of its own, save what the Holy One Blessed be He apportions to it at that moment, for this reason they are called middot, measurements…”

[11] For Mei Ha-Shiloah’s view on the hisaron character flaw, see Aviezer Cohen, introduction, fn. 3.

[12] Mei Ha-Shiloah, Vayeshev.

[13] Mei Ha-Shiloah, Miketz, s.v. tishma halom liftor oto.

[14] Genesis Rabbah 88:2.

[15] Mei Ha-Shiloah, Vayeshev

[16] It could be argued that on this reading, the baker is a victim of the lesson he is meant to teach. While this is in fact true, The Hasidic masters are focused only on what this narrative has to teach Joseph about himself. In their interpretative approach, the character is both a character and an abstract symbol.

[17] Mei Ha-Shiloah, Vayeshev, s.v. ‘ki inyan hahayim’.

[18] The same unsympathetic standard appears again when Joseph coolly informs the baker he will die in the same manner he tells the steward he will live, not seeming to recognize the human dimension of pain and sorrow in the baker’s experience.

[19] For a thorough explanation of Ishbitz-Radzyn on Joseph, see Ora Wiskind, Hermeneutics and Hasidic Thought: The Izbica-Radzyn Reading of the Joseph Stories [Heb.], 19-21

[20] On both the cosmic and personal level, creation emerges from chaos.: ‘The world was desolate and void’ (Genesis 1:2). ’The word tohu signifies astonishment and amazement, for a person would have been astonished and amazed at its emptiness.’ (Rashi). Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, introduction xx-xxiii, discusses tohu and bohu, each an expression of the depths of the unconscious from which a coherent sense of self emerges. 

[21]According to the Ishbitz-Radzyn reading, Judah possesses the very opposite traits from Joseph.

[22] Genesis 50:18 “we are your servants.”


Batya Hefter is the founder of Lev Nachon – Center for Transformative Torah, whose focus is to transmit the teachings of Hasidic masters into a vital ethical and spiritual path for the modern seeking Jew. She is the founding Rosh Beit Midrash of The Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion where she served as spiritual leader and executive director for two decades. She holds a master’s degree in Rabbinic Thought from Hebrew University. Batya just completed the manuscript of her first forthcoming book; Opening the Window:Hasidic Readings for Life – The Teachings of Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner of Ishbitz-Radzyn.