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Joseph, Vayeshev, and Undocumented Americans

Revisiting the story of Joseph and its resonance with the American immigration debate

Adam Chandler
November 22, 2013
Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform' on Capitol Hill in February. (Getty)
Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform' on Capitol Hill in February. (Getty)

As many prepare to read the Torah portion of Vayeshev at services this week, we are posting an updated version of “Joseph, the Original DREAMer”–a piece by Matthew Hiltzik, which was published in time for the reading of Vayeshev last year. This updated version coincides with the premiere of Jose Antonio Vargas’ Documented, a documentary executive produced by Hiltzik, which tells the story of Vargas, a modern day DREAMer, at the International Documentary Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam this weekend.


You never forget your bar mitzvah Torah portion—but it’s especially meaningful when it’s still teaching you important lessons 28 years later.

My parsha was Bamidbar, or “In the Desert,” the first in the Book of Numbers. It is pretty much an endless series of lists: who led each tribe, the order in which they traveled, and most importantly, how many people were counted in each tribe. It is, as its name implies, very dry.

And so, the summer after my bar mitzvah, I decided to learn to read a portion that was exactly the opposite—short on numbers and heavy on plot, drama, and intrigue. I chose Vayeshev, this week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of Joseph’s plight at the hands of his brothers and his forced exile to Egypt. The young Joseph has dreams that alienate his siblings, and so they throw him in a well, sell him to traveling merchants, and tell their father that his favorite son was eaten by a wild beast. Joseph ends up in Egypt, is sold into slavery, and succeeds, with hard work and skill, at overcoming obstacles and earning the respect of others to eventually be appointed to a high-ranking position in the Egyptian royal court. I began a ritual of reading both portions, every year, for my congregation.

While reviewing Vayeshev in advance of reading it for the congregation at services this Saturday, I realized: Joseph wasn’t simply Western civilization’s original dreamer. He was also the original DREAMer: a young person who like many modern DREAMers was sent to a new country against his will, performs important household work to survive, is trusted with everything in his employer’s home, but is left powerless to fight baseless charges and is imprisoned, only to use his own talents to find his way back. As I studied the story, the comparison became more obvious—as did the obligation I came to realize it placed on me and my fellow Jews.


In the spring of 2011, I was introduced to the writer Jose Antonio Vargas. Born in the Philippines, he was sent to America by his mother when he was only 12, to live with his grandparents in Northern California, to have a shot at the American Dream. Hard-working and affable, he became a very strong student and a pretty popular kid. Jose thrived—until the day he walked into the DMV at age 16 to apply for his driver’s permit, only to find that his “papers” were fake. He graduated high school and then was able to attend college after he secured a Washington state driver’s license. Eventually he became a journalist at the Washington Post and won his field’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize. And he did all that despite not being a legal immigrant.

Last year, we hosted Jose at my family’s Seder. He brought the Seder to life (and posted on Facebook and Twitter about it) by immediately relating to our traditional and ancient narrative of exodus and redemption by sharing the circumstances of his own life and the lives of so many other immigrants who flee tyranny, drawn by the chance to contribute to the incredible promise of America. We recently discussed how Jose’s name, like Joseph’s, has two meanings; one comes from the root y-s-p, which, in Hebrew, mean “to add,” but the other derives from the word asaf, which means “to collect.” These two meanings are present in Joseph’s life—as he was sent away from his loving father, he “collected” invaluable perspective and insight during his journey which “added” to Egypt, where he excelled and where he could, literally and metaphorically, have a dream.

Is it a coincidence, then, that the bill that would allow so many undocumented immigrants an opportunity to live life as fully and freely and safely as any other American is called the DREAM Act? The comparisons are clear: Just like Joseph, these underage immigrants without proper documentation have been sent to a new country by their family and against their will. Just like him, many are forced into menial labor, and have no legal recourse or means of self-defense. Just like him, they are often trusted with our children and our households, but not with the basic privileges of citizenship. Just like him, they too are told that their dreams are silly. And just like Joseph, their fate can be tragic. The final word of the parsha is va-yishkatheyhu—he was forgotten. So, too have the DREAMers been forgotten as immigration reform has been stalled in Washington..

Immigration became a major issue in this year’s presidential campaign, but it’s just not something that American Jews typically think about—or think affects them. Yes, leaders like Rabbi Haskel Lookstein—the head of RAMAZ, my high school—led our community in fighting for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, but for many others, this isn’t a topic discussed anymore, if it ever was.

But in June, Jose appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, for a brave and important story in which he literally offered himself and others as the faces of these undocumented immigrants. This is a Jewish issue–exemplified by the fact that among those featured with Jose is an Israeli-born DREAMer, living in limbo with no path to citizenship.

All of the face on the Time cover represented those who–like the biblical Joseph–were trying to survive and excel in a land where they were sent to live by their families through no decision of their own and they were all so desperate to be accepted as Americans. Thinking about all of them made me realize that these modern-day Josephs just want to be counted.

And that’s when it hit me: There was, in fact, incredible power and so much to learn from my bar mitzvah portion of Bamidbar, the parsha that I rejected as boring and dry all those years ago—that merely being counted, being an official member of the community and not just chattel or as a problem, actually matters a great deal. And it is our obligation, as the descendants of Joseph as well as countless other immigrants who have realized their dreams, to at least contribute to this discussion and make sure the issue remains at the top of the national agenda. The broader issue of immigration is incredibly complicated, but the DREAM Act should be a no-brainer; creating a path to citizenship for these modern-day Josephs would be a premier expression of our values as both Jews and Americans.

I’ll be reading Bamidbar again this coming May, as I always do, and I hope that as I read about the numbers this time, Jose, Roy, and all the other eligible DREAMers, will be well on their way to being counted.

Matthew Hiltzik (@hiltzikstrat) is the president and CEO of Hiltzik Strategies, a strategic communications and consulting firm. He is the producer of Paper Clips, Holyland Hardball, Connected, and Documented. He lives in New York City with his extremely patient and understanding wife and three children.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.