Vayeishev

This week's parsha, Vayeishev, begins the Joseph saga. This amazing story comprises a full four Torah portions -- more than the stories of any of the prior patriarchs or matriarchs. This seems strange at first because Joseph is not even considered a patriarch in our tradition. He is merely the favourite son of our namesake Jacob/Israel who behaves in this portion like a 17-year-old spoiled brat, tattling on his brothers and then informing them of his dreams that he will someday rule over them. He also flaunts his special relationship with his father.

Though Joseph is not considered among the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) his story encompasses almost the entire remainder of the book of Genesis, and is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of any of the actual patriarchs. It is Joseph's story that helps to transition to the nation-building period that is the core of the remainder of the Torah, beginning with the exodus from Egypt.

But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right.

Jacob settles in Hebron with his 12 sons. His favourite is clearly Joseph – and he shows this favouritism by making him a coat of many colours. Joseph tattle tales on his brothers to his father – making them hate him. Joseph relates two dreams he has to his brothers – dreams that foretell that he is destined to rule over them. This increases his brothers’ envy and hatred towards him.

Shimon and Levi (the famous pair who orchestrated the massacre of Shechem in retaliation of their sister’s rape) plot to kill him, but Rueben convinces them to throw Joseph into a pit instead (Rueben plans to later come back and save Joseph).

But before this happens, Judah sells him to a band of passing Ishmaelites.

The brothers dip Joseph’s special coat in the blood of a goat and show it to Jacob who now believes that his most beloved son was killed by a wild beast.

Suddenly in the middle of the story, we jump to a story about Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.

Judah marries and has 3 children. The eldest Er dies young and childless. His wife Tamar is given in marriage to the second son, Onan. Onan dies. Judah is reluctant to have his 3rd son marry her. Determined to have a child from Judah’s family, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces Judah himself. Judah discovers that his daughter-in-law has become pregnant and orders her executed for harlotry, but Tamar produces some personal effects he left with her as a pledge for payment. He publicly admits that he is the father. Tamar gives birth to twin sons Peretz (an ancestor of King David) and Zerach.

The interlude is over and we’re back to Joseph.

Joseph is taken to Eygpt and sold to Potiphar, the minister in charge of Pharoh’s slaughterhouses. Soon he is made overseer of all of his master’s property.

Potiphar’s wife desires the handsome and charismatic lad. When Joseph rejects her advances, she tells her husband that the Hebrew slave tried to force himself on her and has Joseph thrown in prison. Joseph gains the trust and admiration of his jailers who appoint him to a position of authority in the prison administration.

In prison, Joseph meets Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker, both incarcerated for offending their royal master. Both have disturbing dreams which Joseph interprets: in three days, he tells them, the butler will be released and the baker hanged. Joseph asks the butler to intercede on his behalf with Pharaoh. Joseph’s predictions are fulfilled, but the butler forgets all about Joseph and does nothing for him.

Big Ideas (most essential points, themes, etc)

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers.

Throughout the ages we’ve criticized Joseph for the way he behaved towards his brothers. But some have expressed sympathy, saying that Jacob's other sons should have shown compassion for their younger brother who lost his beloved mother while she was giving birth to his brother Benjamin. Instead, they treated him as an outsider, and so he used his father's natural favoritism (based on the fact that he was Jacob's beloved Rachel's son) to taunt his brothers. This eventually backfired and caused his brothers to decide to sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites (though at first they were going to kill him), his coat then torn and dipped in goat's blood in order to convince Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.

Jewish tradition has much to say about the causes of hostility against Joseph. Even traditional rabbinic commentators are troubled by the young man's behaviour. Some authorities claim that the act of dreaming the dreams itself was reprehensible, as it exhibited visions of grandeur that Joseph obviously nursed during wakeful moments. The commentators understand the brothers' hatred of Joseph and express shock that he would reveal not just one but two dreams. Why, then, does Jewish tradition refer to Joseph as "HaTzadik," some commentators ask? Such "overweening pride and self-importance [seems] remote indeed from the conception of righteousness implicit in the title," writes contemporary scholar Nehama Liebowitz. Elie Wiesel does battle with this notion as well, asserting that Joseph was the singular ancestor called "righteous" in a line of great patriarchs. Countless traditional commentators offer that Joseph's greatest act as tzadik came in resisting the temptation of Potiphar's wife. He was also said to be consistently God-fearing in a secular world, and humble in a position of power.

But Wiesel is not satisfied. The Nobel laureate knows from later parashiyot that even while Joseph was praising God's divine wisdom, he was endlessly scheming his own next move; while he embraced his Abrahamic origins, he kept one foot firmly planted in the secular, Egyptian culture that rewarded him.

The Joseph saga raises the question of how contemporary Jews choose their Biblical role models. What can we learn from these eminent characters with all their internal flaws, their morally imperfect behavior, their all-too-human shortcomings? There is a fine line between being righteous and being self-righteous. In Hebrew, the distinction is between being a "tzadik," righteous, and being "tzadik b'einav," righteous in one's own eyes. Joseph, it seems, struggled with his own divinely ordained charm, which was both the source of his brothers' enmity and of his effectiveness as a member of Pharaoh's court. Wiesel only accepts Joseph as "HaTzadik" because it is a righteous person who resists temptations in human relationships. Joseph is crowned tzadik because he ultimately forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery and compassionately helps his family move to Egypt during a time of famine in Canaan. Joseph succeeds in vanquishing his bitterness and turns it into love. "What does all this mean?" Wiesel asks. "That one is not born a Tzadik; one must strive to become one. And having become a Tzadik, one must strive to remain one."

The significance of dreams in the Torah.

The Zohar (1,183b) states that “no occurrence materializes in the world that is not first revealed to one in a dream” and that “the edicts of the Heavenly Court are first shown to the children of man in dreams, then after a short time, the matter comes to pass.” (Zoh.1, 251b).

As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, the subject of dreams runs throughout the Torah. Our Rabbis (Berakhot 57b) have said that dreams are a small portion of prophecy. Our sages believed that it is through dreams that we humans communicate with all kinds of non-corporeal entities, be they disembodied spirits, demons, angels or even God Himself. A dream also is a communication between our conscious minds and our Neshama (soul), which dwells in the unconscious.

The parsha starts with Joseph’s 2 dreams – dreams which he communicates to his brothers – and the obvious meaning of the dreams inflames the brothers even more.

In the first dream, Joseph dreams that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field when suddenly his sheave arose and the brothers’ sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to it. In the second dream, he dreams that the sun, the moon and 11 stars were bowing down to him.

The symbolism of the elumeem – the sheaves implied to Joseph that his brothers would bow down to him because of their need for grain.

In next week’s parsha we’ll discover just how prophetic this dream was.

According to Rambam the fact that the sheaves gathered around indicated that they would surround him like subjects congregating around a king. Abarbanel comments that Joseph’s sheaf stood up of its own accord implying that his rise to power would not be because of his brothers – and it remained standing, according to Sforno, symbolizing that he would remain in power for a very long time – proven true by the fact that Joseph was viceroy of Egypt for 80 years – the longest reign recorded in Scripture.

The message in Joseph’s second dream – although it uses a different metaphor – is essentially the same as the first – with one major new factor. This dream included the suggestion that even his father and mother (who was dead) would bow to him. According to our sages, the repetition of a dream indicates the certainty of its fulfillment, so that the two dreams with essentially the same theme implied that fulfillment was not far off. Although the brothers and Jacob did not actually bow to Joseph until 22 years later, the process that culminated in Joseph’s elevation to the ruler of Egypt was about to begin.

The significance of Tamar’s deception and ultimate reward

According to the Midrash, Nahmanides and Hizkuni, Tamar was acting according to the custom of that time, by which Levirate marriage could be practised not only by a brother of the deceased husband, but also by another close relative - in this case, Judah, Tamar's father-in-law. Her act was one of piety, ensuring that her husband's family line would be continued.

Does Joseph’s resistance to Potiphar’s wife’s advances make him a tzaddik?

Joseph's reluctance to engage Potiphar's wife in sexual activity seems rooted in Joseph's high degree of personal moral character. He knows that Potiphar trusts him. While this view suffices for the biblical narrative, the rabbinic sages offer a midrash on this passage that expands the reasoning behind Joseph's behaviour.

In B'reishit Rabbah 87:5, they suggest three possible explanations for Joseph's righteous behavior. The first explanation suggests that Joseph declines Potiphar's wife's advances because he remembers Adam, the first human being. Joseph recalls that Adam violated a minor commandment when he ate the forbidden fruit. Adam's punishment for that transgression was to be banished from the Garden of Eden. If such a punishment could come from a minor sin, surely, Joseph thinks, the punishment for partaking in this major sin, adultery, would be especially grievous. So out of fear of severe divine retribution, Joseph refuses Potiphar's wife. The second explanation for Joseph's motivation to refuse the advance is that he reflects on what happened to his brother Reuben when he lay with Bilhah, one of his father's concubines. As we learn in Chronicles 5:1-2, Reuben was stripped of his birthright, which was then transferred to Joseph. Joseph fears he too might lose his birthright for a similar violation. The third explanation imagines that when Joseph refuses the advance, Potiphar's wife becomes despondent and even offers to kill her husband. Joseph angrily responds, "Isn't it enough that I would be counted in the assembly of adulterers, that I should (also) be (counted) in the assembly of murderers?" Here, he refuses Potiphar's wife not out of fear of external punishment, but rather because of the shame, the depth of wrong, that would include him in the "assembly of murderers."

The Conspicuous absence of God in the story.

At first glance, there is nothing intrinsically ‘religious’ about the story. All along the journeys of Abraham or the Binding of Isaac, G-d plays an unmistakable role. Even in the dream of Jacob, it is G-d who stands at the head of the ladder.

Throughout Genesis, G-d moves in and out of the narrative as if He were the central character - which in fact, He is. But in the drama of Joseph, G-d is glaringly absent. But it is a mistake to think thus. In its deeper structure, the story is very much a religious one. It contains, in almost perfect symmetry, the single, most basic religious message that man must learn. Everything that one does creates a reverberation, an echo that will resonate at some future point in history.

Let us first deal with the cloak of many hues. After the brothers strip Joseph of the garment they dip it into the blood of a slaughtered goat. Jacob, upon recognizing the distinctive cloth cries out, “Joseph is surely slain.” And so Jacob is deceived by a cloak.

But is this not an echo of an act which Jacob himself had performed? Did he then not fool his blind father, Isaac, by wrapping his arms in a garment? One made from the skin of a goat? Of course, one will argue that Jacob’s deception was necessary. A spiritual catastrophe would have ensued had Esau received the blessing. But the inescapable fact is that Jacob used the goat and clothing as tools of deceit. In doing so he created his own echo, one that inevitably would come back to haunt him. Further echoes: The Torah says, “He took him and cast Joseph into the pit.” Who is this anonymous “he”? According to the Midrash, it is Shimon.

Twenty-two years later, one of the brothers is detained and thrown into a pit. Of course, it was Shimon. The balance is unnerving. The brothers had accused Joseph of bearing tales to their father; now they are charged with being spies. Dreams force Joseph into the pit; dreams release him from prison.

On and on it goes. There are dozens of other examples, confirming that all actions create reactions. Up until this Biblical tale, one might have seen man as a pawn maneuvered by a Master Puppeteer. The Joseph story informs us that G-d allows man to captain his ship and chart his own destiny. As they say, “The ball is in your court.” Can there be any more significant religious message than this?

The significance of Rachel’s Theft of the Idols

Shortly after their return, Rachel unexpectedly dies in childbirth. Most readers don’t see any connection between this death and Laban’s search in chapter 31. Yet, the Jewish commentators connect this tragic event to Jacob’s oath to Laban: ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live’ (Gen. 31:32). This oath was fulfilled not by Laban, but by God Himself: the one who had stolen the idols, had to die.

Ben-Oni or Benjamin?

The Hebrew shows that both Jacob and Rachel realized this connection as well. The name that the dying mother gives her son – Ben-Oni (בן-אוני) – probably means “the son of my iniquity” (און שלי, “my evil”). Understandably, Jacob didn’t want the child to carry this name, therefore he called him Benjamin (בנימין), “son of the right hand,” which may be also interpreted as “son of the oath,” since right hand in the Bible often symbolizes an oath.

The Scriptures tell us about the laws of the spiritual world, which Rachel broke. Despite the fact that Laban’s search for the idols was unsuccessful, Rachel was still punished for her theft.

Connections to our lives

  • The damage caused when parents play favourites.

  • The concept of using trickery and deceit to win (Tamar tricking Judah, the brothers deceiving their father over Joseph’s fate) Do the ends justify he means?

  • The responsibility God has placed on us by giving us free will, free choice.