While Yosef’s righteousness is well noted in Post-Biblical sources, what is less well-known is that he may have been the first political candidate in Jewish life.
We know from the Torah text that Yosef had dreams that predicted his future greatness within his family. Yet we must wonder why he was so determined to tell his dreams to his brothers. He certainly must have noticed the negative response the dreams always elicited. One possible reason is that Yosef wanted to inform his public of his aspirations. In typically political fashion, he may have felt that you can’t win the race if you don’t run. Thus, Yosef does what is usually necessary to attain leadership: he campaigns.
The Torah text (Bereshit 37:2) gives us an additional hint to Yosef’s early political behavior by mentioning a seemingly unimportant fact – that he would spend his time with the children of Bilhah. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provides us with a highly plausible explanation for this behavior. It could be that Yosef preferred the children of the maidservants, because they viewed themselves as his social inferiors. When he was with them, there was no contest for leadership and he could pursue his calling. Leah’s children, on the other hand, might have viewed his ambitions with suspicion.
To round out the picture, the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 84:7) tells us how Yosef would expend unusual effort on his personal grooming. Given that such a view seems to fit the Biblical personality that emerges from the text, the Midrash may be revealing – as it is none other than a Jewish king that has the halachic obligation to cut his hair every day (Ta’anit 17a). According to this, Yosef very early on seems to have felt the need to publicly prepare for his destiny by dressing the part of royalty.
As things turned out, Yosef did become a prominent political leader – in Egypt. His brothers did supplicate and defer to him in that role. When it came to the leadership of the family of Yaakov, however, different traits and talents were necessary. And that leadership position went to a brother more suited to the role, Yehudah, and not to Yosef – the initial, very public candidate for the job.
This Dvar Torah was adapted by Harry Glazer from pages 111-113 in the chapter “Redeeming Our Ideals: Yehudah and the Making of a Jewish Leader,” in Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book Redeeming Relevance In the Book of Genesis: Explorations in Text and Meaning (Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006).