There was something about Joseph. He didn’t seem able to keep up with his brothers. He couldn’t control himself. He often blurted out statements that were alternatively unfunny, inappropriate or downright offensive.
His brothers found him at times to be a drag to have around. He wasn’t able to process their emotional responses to him. People would whisper about how Joseph would not amount to anything.
Joseph’s father Jacob spent inordinate amounts of time with him, perhaps because he knew Joseph needed extra support and attention. He showered his son with special gifts and clothing, maybe to make up for the extra challenges Joseph had to overcome. Jacob forgave Joseph’s lack of social graces, perhaps because he discerned within Joseph some real possibility. Where others perceived a kid with challenges who could not control himself, Jacob hoped for a bright future.
We all have moments when we are misunderstood, times when we feel we just do not fit in. Some of us say things that came out wrong or just did not fit the situation. Many of us have had to correct more than one social faux pas or smooth over a rocky relationship. We adjust our lives to these realities.
But imagine if you couldn’t. Imagine if you were wired in such a way that the ability to hold back just was not within your grasp. What if you or your loved one spoke truths as you saw them without the internal filters to ascertain whether or not the words were socially acceptable or even kind?
In parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1−40:23), we meet our biblical ancestor Joseph and discover that most people thought he was a bit off. We also perceive that Joseph grew into himself, uncovering a wealth of valuable skills that went unrecognized by his brothers and others. Initially described as an irritating and sometimes offending young man, whose brothers could not deal with, Joseph grew up to become a valuable member of Pharaoh’s court, guiding him through the challenges of a devastating famine.
While there is no proof that young Joseph struggled with any psycho-social challenges, he reminds me a lot of so many who are dear to me: good people who are wired uniquely and are so misunderstood by society and, more often than not, by their very own relatives. While modern scholars warn us not to ascribe modern psychological analyses to ancient Biblical characters, I cannot help but wonder if Joseph lived on the autism spectrum.
Today, we are slowly recognizing that people on the autism spectrum have defined skills and abilities, which can be of great service to society. The Jewish community is moving closer to full inclusion. As we do and it does, perhaps we can re-look at our ancestors.
Let us develop the willingness to see in those who exhibit atypical behavior, that same essence: that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). All of our children (and adults) deserve to be embraced for their compromised equality, blessed uniqueness and infinite value. May we work extra hard to embrace all people, uncovering their unique talents, and nurturing them to success.
And let us praise father Jacob for his patience and loving attention to his son Joseph. May we, like Jacob, nurture patience within ourselves, so that we will more readily embrace those in our lives who face their own unique challenges.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California, is co-author, with his wife of Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).