You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayeishev.
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner Five Cities of Refuge
The Joseph novella, the last thirteen chapters of the book of Genesis, may be the first modern piece of literature. Nowhere in it does God say or do anything. Through Joseph’s awful descent into Egyptian slavery and his equally dizzying ascent to the Egyptian throne, God apparently does nothing. Br’er Rabbit, he lay low. All the characters in the saga remain convinced that they are controlling their own destinies, busily going about their own business, completing what they believe are their own agendas. But we who have read the story countless times know better. We understand that the whole thing is just one big setup to get the Jewish people living (what they think will be) happily ever after in Egypt at the end of Genesis
(blissfully) unaware of the advent of some evil pharaoh who won’t remember Joseph and his brothers. But evidence of divine (albeit anonymous) manipulation abounds. Perhaps one of the most compelling examples is the unnamed stranger who meets Joseph and tells him where his brothers (and destiny) await.
“I just coincidentally overheard them say they were headed toward Dothan,” he says. Now if we were to be given such a line in modern literature, we would balk at the whole thing. “Artificial, clumsy plot contrivance,” we’d complain. Surely the author can come up with a better way to get Joseph to his conniving brothers without resorting to some anonymous tip.
Why not just send him to Dothan in the first place? What possible literary value could there be in this irrelevant side trip to the field of Shechem? Nothing at all except, perhaps, getting the reader to wonder about why there are seemingly irrelevant side trips occasionally populated by unnamed strangers whose words change everything.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And He Dwelt)
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Joseph tells his amazing dreams and is thrown into a pit by his brothers. Then we turn to the story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. After Tamar is widowed by two of Judah’s sons, he witholds his third son from her, leaving her in limbo. She tricks Judah by disguising herself as a prostitute and bearing his child.
“HERE COMES THE DREAMER,” say Joseph’s brothers as they plot his murder. “We shall see what will become of his dreams!” In this week of Vayeshev, we will look to our dreams to see what has become of them. For in following those dreams, and risking everything, the blessing of our lives may be received.
Joseph, the dreamer, knows that the troubles he encounters are sent to him by God. He knows that blessing comes disguised and it is his mission to see through that disguise, to unmask the blessing even if it takes a lifetime. Somehow Joseph is blessed with the knowledge of his own radiance. He has always known that he is loved, that he is special and that he has a rich destiny to fulfill.
What prevents us from receiving this blessing of our own shining essence? What has dimmed our radiance, belittled the greatness of our souls and obscured for us the truth of just how we fit in to the great puzzle of life?
THE TORAH TEACHES US THAT GREATNESS is born through unlikely circumstances; destiny unfolds in unexpected ways. Interrupting the story of Joseph is the drama of Tamar from whose blood will come King David and the messianic consciousness to heal the world.
Tamar, caught in the injustice of a cruel system, breaks all the rules, and acts from the knowledge of her own beauty, truth and radiance. Tamar refuses to give up her dream. She risks her life to allow our dream to be birthed through her. The two children born to Tamar as a result of her dream-following and risk-taking are named “Breakthrough” (Peretz) and “Radiance” (Zerach).
Joseph too is blessed with the powers of Breakthrough and Radiance that come from following dreams. Vayeshev returns us to his story and it is our story as well. Fate seems to play a strange game, lifting us out of slavery, letting our beauty shine, and then sending us back to the dungeon. Yet even in prison, the dreams keep us alive and will eventually open the doors to freedom and power.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
SOMETIMES THE GIFT of our uniqueness becomes a burden. When we receive the glory of our unique destiny, there is a danger of estrangement. We may feel lonely or alienated from societal norms. It is hard to know how to manifest our dreams when we feel so isolated. We guard ourselves from the envy of others by hiding the gift, even from ourselves.
The disjunction between ordinary life and the life of our dreams can send us spinning off too far in either of those directions. We may not have the words or the confidence to express our dreams, and so dishonor or discount them. Or we might become so in love with our dreams that we want to live only there. We can become so involved with the drama of our unique destiny that we forget our humility and interconnectedness. There is a danger in knowing that you are special, but forgetting that everyone else is just as special, just as beloved of God.
The spiritual challenge of Vayeshev invites a well-known Hasidic paradox into our pockets. In one pocket the message says, “For me the world was created.” In the other pocket the message reads, “I am but dust.” When I become too intoxicated with my own dream, I reach into the pocket of Dust. When I forget the dream I reach into the pocket of World. Sometimes I just keep both hands in my pockets, touching both truths, bathed in glory, and laughing at myself.
1 Genesis 37:21
For Guidelines for Practice please click on the link to the website.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
IN THE DARK (VAYESHEV) 2008
The mysterious unnamed man
is always a messenger
sent to keep our story moving
in the right direction.
The appropriate answer
is always hineni, here I am
ready for whatever pitch
is up God’s sleeve.
Into the pit, out of the pit
from slavery into service:
descent always contains
the seeds of ascent.
He had to be enslaved
in order to be accused
had to be accused
in order to be imprisoned
had to be imprisoned
in order to hear the dreams
of the cupbearer and the baker
which “surely God can interpret”
had to interpret dreams
in order to sire Freud
a few hundred generations
down the ancestral line.
But the cupbearer forgets
leaving Joseph in the dark
as the longest night of the year
threatens to swallow us whole.
Vayeshev: Torah and couture 2005
What’s up with all of the clothing symbolism in parashat vayeshev?
First we learn that haute couture can inspire powerful responses: Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat makes his brothers so jealous they sell him into slavery. Then there’s the outer garment which Potiphar’s wife grabs as she orders him to lie with her — which, when he flees, tears away and is left in her hands, the “proof” she uses to condemn him. As this commentary notes, Joseph gets a costume change to match every change of his fortunes. Like Clark Kent tearing off his mundane garb in a phone booth, Joseph changes his look every time he enters a new role.
The Hebrew for the multicolored coat is כתנת פסים (k’tonet pasim); the word in the Potiphar story is בגד (beged), “garment.” A quick dip into my Brown-Driver-Briggs tells me that the three-letter root בגד means “garment, clothing, raiment, robe” when it’s a noun…and “act or deal treacherously” when it’s a verb. Okay, there’s definitely something interesting happening here. Potiphar’s wife’s attempted treachery (בגד) leaves her with a robe (בגד) in her hands. And though Joseph’s tunic isn’t a בגד it leads to his brothers’ betrayal, hinting at the synonym for clothing that the text doesn’t use.
Given the resonance between the two kinds of beged, why doesn’t the text use that word at the start of the story? Why is Josph’s multicolored garment a k’tonet? This commentary notes that k’tonet is the name of the garment worn by the High Priest, and it’s also the name of the garment God stitches for Eve and Adam out of skins. Are we meant to infer that Joseph prefigures the High Priest in some way, or to compare him with Adam? (Some commentors note that when Joseph was presented with temptation, he remembered Adam’s error, and his fear of punishment kept him on the straight and narrow.)
Reb Tirzah Firestone notes here that another figure in Torah wears a k’tonet passim: Tamar, also violated by a sibling. “These Technicolor coats carried some heavy karma,” Reb Tirzah writes. “In both stories, the jackets are the props spelling specialness that ends in sibling violence.” She sees special resonance in Joseph’s shift from k’tonet to beged: the k’tonet is “the garment of our identification, our story line. Our story might be about our greatness; it might be about how much we have suffered or the way in which we have uniquely suffered, it doesn’t matter. These identities, like the k’tonet passim, keep us special and hence, keep us separate.” Joseph relinquishing that garment — and, later, relinquishing his beged in order to keep his honor — is a sign of his transformation.
Scott, a rabbinic student I met at Elat Chayyim last summer, spun a drash on the root בגד: that our clothes, the externals we don before venturing into the world, can disguise our true selves. In this sense, the professional or personal armor in which we gird ourselves is a kind of treachery, a concealment of our vulnerability before each other and before God. Indeed, this commentary argues that “BeGeD is one of Torah’s great puns; its very root means betrayal and deception, for the role of clothing is to hide and conceal.”
So is Torah trying to subtly suggest that we all become nudists? Doubtful. Meaningful though it may be that mikvah immersion, for instance, is done naked — a way of being present to God’s Presence without any external stuff coming between us — life can’t be lived in that kind of immersive connection all the time. But this week’s story reminds us that though our garments can say things about who we want to be, they can also cause trouble…and that our actions, whatever they may be, speak louder than the robes we (do or don’t) wear.
Teaching from Rav Kook
Vayeshev: Tamar’s Sacrifice
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the peculiar story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar occurred after Judah was informed that the young widow had been behaving loosely and was pregnant. Judah meted out a harsh punishment for her promiscuity: “Take her out and have her burned” [Gen. 38:24].
Confronted with such a severe sentence, Tamar could have easily pointed an accusing finger at Judah. After all, it was Judah who had made her pregnant, not knowing the true identity of the ‘prostitute’ he had met on the road to Timna. Incredibly, Tamar chose to be silent. Only as she was led out for her punishment, did Tamar say enigmatically, “I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles” [Gen. 38:25]. When Judah heard that terse statement, he suddenly realized that her pregnancy was not the result of promiscuity, but a form of yibum (levirate marriage) that Tamar had only been able to consummate through deception.
Why didn’t Tamar save her life by clearly identifying her father- in-law – and judge – as the person responsible?
The Talmud derives an amazing lesson from Tamar’s selfless act:
“It is better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than to shame another person in public” [Berachot 43b].
This remarkable statement raises two questions. First of all, is honor really such an important thing? Did not the Sages teach [Avot 4:21] that the pursuit of honor “drives one from the world”?
Secondly, there are only three crimes (murder, idolatry, and illicit relations) so grievous that it is preferable to die rather than transgress them. Why was Tamar willing to be put to death so as not to put Judah to shame?
Superficial Honor and Inner Worth
To answer the first question, we need to distinguish between two types of honor. The first is an illusory honor based on external factors – wealth, position, fame, and so on. Pursuing this superficial type of honor is a destructive trait that can truly cause one to lose his way and squander his life.
There is, however, a second form of honor, based on awareness of our true inner worth as human beings created in God’s image. Recognition of our inner dignity, and aversion of a life of ignominy, has an opposite effect to the pursuit of external honor. This awareness is the foundation of morality and life itself. It raises our spirits to value the genuine nobility of spiritual perfection and Divine knowledge.
In an essay explaining the need in our generation to study the Torah’s esoteric teachings, Rav Kook wrote:
“While the world progresses in its external culture, it simultaneously declines in its inner worth. This deterioration stems from the phenomenon that, with the advance of culture’s external values, the eye is increasingly captivated by superficialities, and learns to belittle inner awareness. Due to this process, humanity’s true worth continually dwindles. The redemption of the world depends on the restoration of our inner recognitions.” [Orot HaKodesh vol. I, p. 96]
Human life has value only when accompanied by a sense of honor and dignity. Therefore, it is better to forfeit one’s physical life then publicly shame another person, permanently disgracing him and ruining his honor. Such a public defaming will bring about the loss of all value in living – a slow and degrading demise.
In practice, however, it seems that one should not take such a drastic step. In the end, a full life can heal and restore all lost honor. Nonetheless, a noble and sensitive soul should feel that his own desire to live is lost, if survival means the public disgrace and long-term humiliation of another person. For this reason, the Sages did not write, ‘One is required to throw himself into a fiery furnace,’ but ‘It is better.’ This is how we should feel, even if in practice it does not come to that.
[adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 191]
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayeshev
C D E flat F
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure, a *maqam cognate of maqom signifying place.
Father thought he was going to settle down [Gen.37:1]
I love this part –
so he sent me after my brothers [37:14]
to see how they are doing.
I couldn’t find them
they were feeding father’s flock in Dotan.
I go when called [37:13]
Hineni I say
but I wouldn’t make much out of that
I don’t have the energy to be anywhere else
so I am here
my present is demanding enough
to require my full attention.
I was in the emek of Hevron [the valley] [37:14]
Rashi the poet reminds us —
surely we know that Hevron is high
not a valley
he means I am spinning into the amukah now
the depth of the story
the deep tale
I will find my brothers
they will sell me out
I will be taken to Egypt
I will read dreams there
be enslaved there
we will flee there.
That’s the deep story
we become a people with an edge in Egypt.
From Debbie Shapiro
Debbie is a friend of Aryae’s from the House of Love and Prayer. Today she is a
Breslov-Haredi woman and a professional writer.
An Image for Generations
And it came about on a certain day, that he [Joseph] came to the house [Potiphar’s house] to do his work, and none of the people of the house [except Potiphar’s wife] were home. So she [Potiphar’s wife] grabbed him [Joseph] by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand as he fled outside (Genesis 39:11,12.)
In this portion we see that Joseph really earned the unique title of Tzaddik (a holy man.) Orphaned of his mother at age seven and despised by his brothers, he was sold into slavery and ended up in Egypt, far from his beloved Canaan. There, Potiphar, a high ranking minister in Pharaoh’s government, purchased him to join his staff of household slaves. Joseph slowly climbs the ranks until, at the tender age of seventeen, he is charged with running his master’s household.
The Medrash describes Joseph as being incredibly handsome, to such an extent that when women saw him, they would be overwhelmed with desire and whatever they held in their hands would come crashing to the ground. Potiphar’s wife also falls in love with him and, for an entire year, she tries to seduce him. Joseph is a young man, in the prime of life; yet, even though he is enticed by an incredibly stunning woman, he retains his integrity and refuses to commit adultery. And when he staunchly resists her charm, Potiphar’s wife threatens him with imprisonment –or worse
But even Joseph, the quintessential Tzaddik, reaches a breaking point. “And on that day” – it was a Egyptian festival when everyone went to the temple, and she remained home, claiming sick – “he (Joseph) came to the house to do his work” (Genesis 39:11). In Tractate Shabbos, Rav and Shmuel discuss what the phrase “to do his work” adds to the meaning of the verse. After all, why else would he come to his master’s house if not to do his job?
Rav is of the opinion that Joseph, well aware that Mrs. Potiphar was alone, entered for the sole purpose of giving in to his desires.
But the Gemarah tells us that at that very moment, as he is on the very verge of committing adultery at the height of passion, Joseph sees an image of his father’s face reflected in the window. According to Yefei To’ar, a commentary on Midrash, he actually sees his own reflection, which is remarkably similar to that of Jacob. The impact of that image is so incredibly powerful that in that one split second before committing adultery he is forced to face all that he stood to lose by giving in to his desires. Fortified with renewed moral courage, he fights his physical nature as well as Mrs. Potiphar’s advances and literally flees the house.
Why was Jacob’s image so powerful that it could stop nature in its tracks?
Jacob is always referred to as the epitome of truth – “You shall give the truth of Jacob” (Michah 7:20). That was his essence; he cleaved to eternity, to that which is true and real, while disdaining falsehood. When Joseph sees his own reflection, which is a mirror-image of his father Jacob, he remembers all that his father had taught him and is forced to face the truth of his actions. That realization is so startling that he flees the house in terror, petrified that if he were to remain for even another split-second, he would give in to his desires and lose that sense of truth.
In his book, Emunat Itecha, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson suggests that this event took place on the first day of Hanukkah. The narrative begins with the phrase, “And it came about on a certain day…” The words “On a certain day, “KeHaYom,” can also be interpreted as “Kaf-heh Yom,” “the twenty-fifth day.” This is how our sages refer to Hanukkah, since the holiday begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.
The word Hanukkah has the same three letter root as hanakh “to dedicate” and hinukh, usually translated as “education,” but referring to instilling the next generation with eternal values — dedicating them to truth – in addition to pure academic achievement. So Hanukkah is related to both hinukh, to educate, and hanakh, to dedicate.
Joseph sees his father’s image in the window; he does not recall a wise saying or a lecture on the value of morality. In his father’s face, he sees his father’s essence as reflected in his actions and then mirrored in his words. This happened on Chanukah, which has its root in hinukh, the holiday when we instill future generations with eternal values.
“On a certain day” — the twenty-fifth of Kislev – Joseph sees his own reflection in the window and is reminded that he is a child of Jacob.
Today, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, as we gaze at the reflection of the Hanukkah candles mirrored in our own windows, we are reminded that we, too, are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and are inspired to live up to that image.
As a youngster growing up in Northern California, after lighting the Hanukkah menorah, I’d often remain in the semi-dark kitchen, staring at the half-eaten candles, overwhelmed by an emotion I could not articulate or explain. It was only many years later that I was able to realize that this emotion was the sense of continuity, of belonging to something much greater than myself. My soul was touching something eternal – the reflection of Jacob’s image.
That image is so powerful that it can continue to guide us and our descendents to this very day.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
This week’s parsha, Va’yeishev, is the beginning of what is often referred to as the Joseph story….. it is among the deepest and most beautiful stories you’ll ever encounter.
Hashem Yisborach please open my heart, please help us to open our hearts….. to Yakov Avinu….. to Yosef and his brothers……
on one very special level
these stories are about opening our hearts to our children
opening our hearts to our brothers and sisters
it’s the story about what happens when
‘chas v’shalom’… may Hashem protect us and Bless us with ‘shalom’
we close our hearts
when we close our hearts and when we feel that our friends
maybe even my brothers, maybe even my sisters
and yes, maybe me too…..and maybe even sometimes i do it to Hashem
and sometimes maybe even many times to my self….
to my’Self’…. to the part of me which is an essential
“cheilek Elokah mi’ma’al, mammash”….. part of Hashem
how are we to open our hearts again
if we closed them so easily why is it so hard to open them again
and why can’t they just stay open…. why does the door keep on
slamming shut….. and even deeper how do i face a shut door
and if necessary how am i supposed to close doors without shutting them
without shutting out someone close or far
without shutting myself out of my life
out of Hashem’s Presence…. which is actually impossible
out of real Life
GEVALT !!! GEVALT !!!
there are so many characters in this week’s parsha
some very holy … some just a little bit ….some on the other side
which character am i right now, which scene am i in
which way am i heading…. can i still find my way back home
to the home of my Soul
On the surface this week’s parsha, Va’yeishev, which opens the story of Joseph and his brothers, seems to be a story of a ‘chas v’shalom’ dysfunctional family plagued by jealousy, abuse and deception. Make no mistake! It is probably the deepest and most beautiful stories you’ll ever encounter. In Yiddish there is an expression, “chap nisht” [lit. don’t grab] which sort of means, relax, you haven’t gotten to the end of the story yet. We surely haven’t gotten to the end of the Great Story, though we are very close. There are depths in this story that have yet to be discovered and revealed.
There is a well-known teaching that states, “Shivim panim l’Torah” – the Torah has seventy faces! (Otiot d’Rabbi Akiva) There are a number of ways to understand this teaching. [The Hebrew word for ‘eye’ is ‘Ayin’. The same word, ‘Ayin’ is also the name of one of the letters of the Aleph-Bet and has the numerical value of seventy! According to the sefer Ma’aseh Torah the eye has seventy membranes and that is why it is called ‘Ayin’; ‘Ayin’ = 70.]
There are seventy inter-related layers of interpretation and meaning to the Torah. Each ‘face’ has its rules of interpretation. ‘PSHAT’, the literal meaning of the text is generally considered the most ‘authoritative’ way of understanding, but not the only way. “Ain mikra yotzei mi’yedei pshuto” – The verse never leaves its ‘pshat’; you cannot ignore the literal meaning of the text. Rashi’s commentary is almost entirely devoted to understanding the ‘pshat’ of the text. Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban and Rashbam often have differing opinions about the correct ‘pshat’ of the text, yet they generally share a common understanding of the rules of ‘pshat’ interpretation. Kabbalah and Chassidut accept the authoritative status of ‘pshat’. Yet they also seek to derive personal spiritual teachings in ‘avodat Hashem’ –service of Hashem, from each phrase and word in the Torah, even when these teachings do not seemingly fit with the ‘pshat’.
Chassidut teaches that a higher plane Yosef and his brothers were arguing about which is the right spiritual pathway – or shall we say the most important of pathways in serving Hashem. Yet on the ‘pshat’- literal level, the story as we read it simply does tell us of a family in great distress. But all this is just the opening setting of the real story. The story is not about what ‘happened’ already; rather, it’s about the continuation, the continuity- “what do you do when you find yourself in such a situation. Do you give up? Do you rebel? If Yosef would have rebelled against Judaism when he was thrown into the pit full of snakes and scorpions, if he would never have spoken to his brothers again, would we fault him, would we not understand him? If his brothers, in their remorse, would have lost all self-confidence in ever ‘fixing’ brotherhood, in ever coming close to Hashem again, would we be surprised?
The big and exciting surprise is that they ‘fixed’ it! All of them together! If you are among the ones who have been hurt in their childhood and youth, you are not alone; there are many like you and me- we’re in the company of Yosef and his brothers. The Ramban often taught “ma’aseh avot siman labanim”- our holy ancestors went through most of life’s hardships to set signposts for their descendants. The secret of Yosef and his brothers is NEVER GIVE UP! The secret of the Torah is NEVER GIVE UP!
NEVER GIVE UP! This is the secret of Chanukah. Never give up believing that deep inside, in the depths of our core essence, there is “shemen tahor”- pure oil, and though it may be just a tiny amount, we can find it, we must never stop looking; we must find it. And when we find it we must light it and illuminate it and dispel the surrounding darkness of the world and eventually transform the darkness into light, the bitter into sweet.
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayeshev [2a]
*Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure, a maqam, cognate of maqom signifying Place.
I dreamed a dream
we were walking through a field
all of us
then we were alone in a small valley
a true emek
it was beautiful just like in the story
all the flowers brightly colored
just as Rashi the poet might have predicted.
It was all as it is supposed to be
the deep significance of events clarified in the dream
just as Rashi predicted
the colors were more vivid
the events released their deep significance
just as Rashi described them
only in color
the kind of colors a child would use
the story opened to me like a flower
a field of stories
I’ll tell it to you again if you like —
the whole story.
From AJR Weekly Torah commentary
Torah Reading for Week of December 6 – December 12, 2009
“Mirror Ball and Chanukah Light”
by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz ’04
…This Shabbat we also begin the holiday of Chanukah just when we read Parshat Vayeshev. Vayeshev is filled with parent-child interactions, dreams and visions, youthful hubris, and sibling rivalry so creatively interpreted in the musical; but the biblical account contains what many contend is the turning point of Jewish history, when Joseph is thrown into the pit by his jealous brothers and is sold into Egyptian slavery. So, what could the story of Joseph have in common with Chanukah, the Festival of Lights?
In the Babylonian Talmud, Massechet Shabbat, Amud 22a), there is a convergence of statements that are also found separately elsewhere in rabbinic literature but, when put side-by-side, are fairly pertinent to this query. First, as a digression from the topic of Shabbat candles, Rabbi Tanchum teaches that the kindling of the Chanukah lights cannot be higher than 20 cubits, about 13 feet, off the ground, or they will not fulfill the mitzvah of pirsuma d’nisa, publicizing the miracle, an important part of Chanukah. This is juxtaposed with his comment on Vayeshev, when he notes that narrative of Joseph’s being thrown into the pit is described by two phrases: “HaBor raak,” the pit was empty, and “Ayn bo mayim” there was no water in it (Genesis 37:24). The miraculous survival of Joseph in what might have been a scorpion-filled pit and his later ascendancy to new heights are totally astonishing, for each is accompanied by Divine providence. And the juxtaposition of the discussion of the height of the Chanukah lights and the depth of the pit into which Joseph had been thrown has an especially strong message at Chanukah; for as we approach the darkest time of the year, we are to be reminded by the lights of the Chanukiah, to keep a sense of perspective and to keep miracles in sight.
This year, the message has added significance. Many of us are dealing with the very real pits of despair being felt by people suffering from the lack of parnassah, loss of home, and, more important, loss of hope. The candles of Shabbat and Chanukah are beacons of separation, unity, and always, always hope. Furthermore, many congregations have earmarked this Shabbat as “Human Rights Shabbat”, when we rededicate ourselves to seeking the spark of the Divine in every human; renew our determination to obliterate human trafficking and the slavery that still exists, diligently work to eliminate the use of governmentally sanctioned torture, and ensure that the right to due process is being upheld, just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified over 61 years ago, affirms the ancient Jewish tenet, that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Almighty.
May this Shabbat of Parshat Vayeshev, Chanukah, and Human Rights see us rededicate ourselves to pursuing righteousness and seeking out the Divine spark in one-another. As we light our candles this Chanukah, may they remind us to appreciate the small miracles that abound in our lives, every day, and may we be thankful for them. May this Chanukah remind us of our responsibilities to our past and to our future. May we strive to enrich our lives with the meaning of our Jewish heritage and may we demonstrate our Jewish values wherever we may go. May we gain the strength to face the challenges of contemporary life by moving our Jewish faith from the periphery to the core of our very being; and may the glow of our Chanukah candles light our paths to healing, reconciliation, and peace….
Shabbat Shalom u-M’vorach
V’Chag Urim Sameiach
I appreciate this commentary about the red thread.
Rabbi Geela-Rayzel Raphael from
The Women’s Torah Commentary
The Red Thread
Finally, we learn here of the tradition of the red thread. The red thread that Tamar used, according to one story, is the same red thread that Rahav (Josh.2:21) uses as a sign to let the spies know which house to protect. According to Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, Tamar’s twin sons Peretz and Zerach, were sent out as spies by Joshua. This red rope that Rachav bound in her house was from Zerach. It was the same scarlet thread that the midwife had bound upon his hand to mark him as the child who, when Tamar gave birth appeared first but then withdrew and was born second.
Although it is centuries later, we are still binding the sign of a scarlet cord. Red thread is still used ritually by women today at Rachel’s tomb in Israel, where the thread is wound around the tomb seven times. It is used to encircle the belly of a pregnant woman to protect a pregnancy. It is also used for good luck and other magical purposes.
The red thead winds its way through history from story to story, connecting us to tradition and to this parashah. We will know, as Tamar did, when we need to take action. This is the symbol of women’s knowing/recognition of right and justice, of our power in situations that may seem beyond our control, and of God’s continuous “weaving of the threads” of our lives.
From Rav Kook
Vayeishev: The Special Teshuvah of Reuben
“And Reuben returned to the pit, but Joseph was no longer in the pit. He tore his clothes [in grief].” (Gen. 37:29)
Where was Reuben coming from? Why wasn’t he together with the other brothers?
According to the Midrash, Reuben was “occupied with sackcloth and fasting,” as he repented for changing his father’s sleeping arrangements. (The word vayashov (‘he returned’) can also mean ‘he repented.’)
The Midrash continues:
“The Holy One said: No one has ever sinned before Me and repented, but you are the first to repent. As you live, one of your descendants will stand up and be the first to urge repentance. And who was this [descendant]? Hosea, who called out, ‘Return, Israel, to the Eternal your God.’ (Hosea 14:2)”
This Midrash is quite difficult. There were a number of individuals who repented before Reuben’s time, such as Adam and Cain. Also, why does the Midrash state that Hosea was the first to exhort the people to repent? We find the mitzvah of teshuvah is already mentioned in the Torah (Deut. 30). It must be that Hosea informed the people regarding some aspect of teshuvah that had not been taught before.
Internal and External Consequences
The impact of sin is in two realms. Sin impairs the soul’s inner holiness. But it also has a negative impact on the world at large. “When the people of Israel are not fulfilling God’s Will, it is as if they are weakening the great heavenly strength” (Eichah Rabbah 1:33).
With teshuvah we repair the soul and restore its original purity. But the damage caused outside the soul – this is only repaired through God’s kindness. “I, yes I am the One Who erases your transgressions for My sake” (Isaiah 43:25). The corrective power of teshuvah is a joint effort – partly by man, partly by God.
Nonetheless, it is possible for an individual to also repair the damage outside his soul. When one’s goal is to elevate all of society, and one’s teshuvah is focused on preventing one’s mistakes from harming and misleading others – such an individual increases light and holiness in all of creation.
Reuben attended to both of these aspects in his teshuvah. First he occupied himself in fasting and sackcloth, repairing the damage to his own soul. But his teshuvah did not end there. He then “returned to the pit.” An open pit in the public domain – bor b’reshut harabim – is a metaphor for a situation likely to lead to trouble and suffering for the general public.
After repairing his soul, Reuben returned and looked at the pit. He examined the damage that he had caused outside himself, in the public domain. He then worked to rectify his actions so that they would not be a stumbling block for others.
(On a simple level, Reuben sinned by upsetting the order in his family, as he intruded on his father’s private life. He sought to correct this mistake by restoring harmony to the family, through his efforts to protect his brother Joseph.)
That is why the Midrash states that Reuben was the first to “sin before Me and repent.” He was the first to repair not only his soul but also that which is “before Me,” i.e., all that God created. In the words of the Midrash, what made Reuben’s teshuvah unique was that he “started with teshuvah.” He aspired to correct the external damage ordinarily repaired by God’s chesed.
Now we may understand the special level of teshuvah mentioned by the prophet Hosea. In the Torah it says, “You will return to God… and the Eternal your God will accept your repentance” (Deut. 30:2-3). This is the normal level of teshuvah, where one repairs the damage in one’s soul, and God corrects the damage in the world.
But Hosea spoke of a higher level of teshuvah. He described a teshuvah like that of Reuben, an effort to repair all the repercussions of one’s errors. Therefore he called out, “Return, Israel, to the Eternal your God.” Hosea encouraged a complete teshuvah, performed by Israel alone.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 191-194)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Joseph dreamed a dream, and told it to his brothers… “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.” (37:5-7).
We live in a disjointed and fragmented world. Its countless components each seem to be going its own way, each creation seeking only its own preservation and advancement. Our own lives include countless events and experiences, espousing different priorities, pulling us in different directions.
But this is but the most superficial face of reality. The deeper we probe nature and its laws, the more we uncover an underlying unity. The more we assimilate the lessons of life, the more we discern a “guiding hand” and a coherent destiny. The more we utilize our talents and resources, all the more do the various aspects of our uniquely individual role fall in place.
This is the deeper significance of Joseph’s dream. We are all bundlers in the field of life. Here, each stalk grows in its own distinct little furrow; our challenge is to bring focus to this diversity, to gather these stalks together and bind them as a single sheave.
But this alone is not enough. As Joseph saw in his dream, his brothers’ individual bundles stood in a circle and bowed to his. This means that while every individual should view the various components of his life as a distinct “bundle,” the piecing together of his life is not an end in itself, but the means to a higher goal. In the words of our sages, “The entire world was created only for my sake; and I was created only to serve my Creator.” So while every person should view his entire world–the resources and opportunities which Divine Providence has sent his way–as being there for him, this “bundle” must in turn be dedicated to the fulfillment of his Divinely ordained mission in life.
The way this is achieved is by subjugating one’s own bundle to “Joseph’s bundle.” The Torah is G-d’s communication of His will to man, and charts the course for man to serve his Creator. And each generation has its “Joseph,” an utterly righteous individual whose life is the perfect embodiment of Torah’s ethos and ideals. This is the tzaddik whom the “bundles” of the various tribes of Israel surround and subjugate themselves to, turning to him for guidance as how best to realize the purpose of their lives.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
A man found him wandering in the field; and the man asked him, saying: “What do you seek?” And he said: “I seek my brothers; tell me, I pray you, where they feed their flocks.” And the man said: “They are departed from here; for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dotan.'” And Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dotan. (37:15-17)
“The man” was the angel Gabriel.
A musical drash on Vayeshev: Gam zu l’tovah
Gam zu l’tovah refers to a folktale idiom “this too is for the best” which is found in the Talmud and in folktales from other traditions too.
Jacob was unfair to his sons
By making Joseph the special one
The other brothers came undone – oy vey iz mir
Reuben saw his brothers’ hate
He worried over Joseph’s fate
But Reuben left and returned too late – gam zu l’tovah
Gam zu l’tovah, gam zu l’tovah
Gam zu l’tovah, gam zu l’tovah
We should not kill him, Judah said
Let’s sell him as a slave instead
Oy, Judah, next time use your head! oy vey iz mir
Joseph enslaved was not so vain
He used his heart and he used his brain
He rose and fell and waxed and waned – gam zu l’tovah
Judah married and had three sons
But the first two died and he feared he’d have none
So he wouldn’t give Tamar the youngest one – oy vey iz mir
Tamar was bold, Tamar was wise
She got herself a great disguise
And then came twins to Judah’s surprise – gam zu l’tovah
From good to bad or bad to good
Things don’t go as you think they should
Instead of trees you just see wood – oy vey iz mir
You think you know but soon you’ll see
That nothing’s as it seems to be
Except perhaps Eternity – gam zu l’tovah
Gam zu l’tovah, gam zu l’tovah
Gam zu l’tovah, gam zu l’tovah!
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Vayashev
December 17, 2011 / 21 Kislev 5772
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson, Mashpiah Ruchanit
Who are You?
Torah Reading: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah Reading: Amos 2:6 – 3:8
The Chernobler Rebbe, the Me’or Aynayim, R’ Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1930-1797), was looked upon as the youngest student of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. There are even stories of some Chassidic Masters who chose the Chernobler rebbe to be his successor, and not the Maggid of Metzrich (d. 1772). Reb Pichas of Koretz laments that because of the Maggid’s appointment he didn’t merit to be the disciple of the Chernobler. Other voices claim that had the Chernobler been picked as the Ba’al Shem Tov’s successor the movement would have never split into the many ‘schools’ and dynasties as it has through the generations. It is hard to imagine, even though it is true, that at times when two families from different Chassidic communities marry off their children to each other, it is considered “inter-marriage”. When I visited the Slonim community for the first time some twenty years ago, one of the women that spoke to me said, in response to my question regarding affiliation: “I’m eighth generation Slonim!” with unquestionable pride.
There is one tradition which is documented in the official writings of the Chernobyl dynasty that I find myself coming back to time and again. It is taught, not only in the Chernobyl dynasty, that when a Chassidic Master gave over teachings during the Third-Meal, the s’udah shlishit, it was a time of prophecy. His words were perceived as if he were channeling the Shekhinah. Truth be told, I have no problem with this concept at all… The time of the Third-Meal, the s’udah shlishit, is considered to be, in our mystical teachings, the peak of the Shabbat. The time of the union of the Divine masculine and feminine, the Kudsha-Brich-Hoo and the Shekhintei. If you can imagine this moment, when the Chassidim are sitting in the dark, chanting niggunim, melodies that enhance an altered state of consciousness, and it is from this space of departure that the Rebbe begins to share words of Torah that come from a higher source. A moment in the Shabbat where our hearts are open, our yearning for a moment of bliss and peace that we have held on to since lighting candles the night before is heightened as the Shabbat begins to slip away. This experience is shared throughout the Chassidic communities.
What distinguished the Chernobyl dynasty from others is the rendition of these teachings! There are many forms in which Chassidic teachings have reached us. Only a minority actually were written by the Rebbe himself or were even published in his life time. Much of what we have was documented by the disciples and printed after the death of the Rebbe. Sometimes close enough to the death of the Rebbe, such as the case of the Or Hameir (R’ Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomer, d.1798), that we can lend ourselves to the belief that the Rebbe actually saw the written version of his teachings. In the Chernobyl tradition what is brought down through the generations is that the Chassidim would write down, immediately on motzei Shabbat, Saturday night, everything they remembered the Me’or Aynayim saying during the Third-Meal, the s’udah shlishit, and then they would bring it to him for revision. It is told that whatever he remembered saying he would have his disciples burn. He said that if he remembered saying it then this means that it come from him, and not from the Shekhinah. It was his teachings and not words that were channeled from a higher source. Hence, based on this tradition, the only teachings we have in the whole book of the Me’or Aynayim are teachings that the Rebbe didn’t remember saying. It is for this reason that I am most interested in the Torah portions that we have no teachings of his whatsoever. I continuously question, in light of this tradition, what was it about these specific portions that he would remember everything he said every year. One thing I do know for a fact – Chassidic Masters did not have an annual contract that brought with it vacations on identical given shabbatot every year.
This week’s Torah portion brings me back to this tradition. The Me’or Aynayim does have a teaching for this week’s Torah portion, but only one! With four chapters that are so rich with events – Yoseph’s dreams; Ya’akov’s love for Yoseph; the rivalry of the siblings and Yoseph being sold to slavery; Yehuda and Tamar; Yoseph in Potifar’s home and what this entailed; the dreams of the Baker and Wine Butler and their decoding. I can’t not ask why a portion so rich in details and figures is so bereft in the Chernobler’s teachings.
The one teaching, you may want to know, is on the pasuk, the verse “And Yisrael loved Yoseph”. The Me’or Aynayim begins with a statement, rather than a question. He states that “it is known that the Torah is eternal in every human being, and in all times. She precedes the world and was garmented in the stories of the patriarchs… but in any event, it has to be so in all times and is called Torah like the linguistic use of the word Morah (teaching, guiding), and we have to understand what is this pasuk teaching us here.”
The Torah, for the Chernobler Rebbe, is not a historical document but rather a garment of God’s light. The Torah is a garment that manifests God’s light in all people, in all times. It is a blueprint that defines the totality of who we are! The question that the Me’or Aynayim would be challenging each and every one of us with is, how do all these pivotal moments in our tradition define us and mold us? He would ask us, for example, based on the first pasuk of our Torah portion, “What does it mean for each and every one of us to dwell in our parental definitions of living in the world that we live in?” Or perhaps, as Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (d. 1809) understands the word “megurei” not as ‘dwelling’ but rather as ‘fear’ (magore), and thus would ask, “Have we inherited our ancestral fears?”
It is in this spirit that what the Ma’or Aynayim leaves us with, as sitting with this Torah portion, is not his rendition of all these intricate stories, but rather the essential question of how we, individually, are mirrored in these stories. How do the voices of Yosef, Ya’akov, the ‘Brothers’, Tamar, Yehuda, Potifar, Mrs. Potifar, the Baker and Wine Butler, and even those that have just been born – Zerach and Peretz – how do they manifest in who we are, and how we live our lives. Who are you and whose voices do you carry in your actions, whether consciously or not?
May we find time during the hour of the Third-Meal, the s’udah shlishit, to channel the Divine Spark within each and every one of us, to see ourselves, to hear ourselves, to be ourselves!
From Rabbi Saraleya Schley
“Vayeisheiv Yaakov b’eretz m’gurei aviv, b’eretz C’na’an.
And Jacob settled in the land in which his father dwelled as a stranger, in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1)
Having completed his Journey of Reconciliation, healing his relationship with his twin brother Esau, one might imagine that Jacob did want to settle down and rest. (The word “vayeisheiv” has hints, not only of sitting, settling and dwelling, but also of Shabbat and teshuvah – all these words share the root letters shin and bet/vet.)
However, a generational inheritance of favoritism and deception followed Jacob and he passed this to his children. Joseph and Judah, may be considered the two protagonists of the ongoing family drama. In this week’s reading, Judah is able to confront his errors, admit his truth and acknowledge Tamar’s righteousness. Over the next two weeks, the drama of Joseph in Egypt unfolds, and he, too, ultimately will remove his mask of deceit.
So much of our work of spiritual growth is to learn what generational gifts and handicaps we have received from our families of origin and to grow through them. As these stories teach us, the more awareness we bring to this task, the less we can fall into the traps of unconscious reenactment.
Once the lessons are integrated through our process of learning about ourselves, we can truly rest in the land where our fathers (and mothers) dwelled. Because of our holy work of cultivating awareness of our personal foibles and traps, our rest can be a true Shabbat because we are no longer caught up in the dramas that have trapped us in trickery and dishonesty. Instead, we can connect with and acknowledge the underlying love that may have been masked by our families’ imperfections. We can settle and rest in our true selves having done this work of teshuvah.
With blessing that our wisdom of heart will be the container for inter-generational healing,
18 Kislev 5772
December 14, 2011
From Chaya Lester
Vayeshev: Will Everybody Please Sit Down
“Vayeshev, And Jacob sat in the land of his father’s sojournings…”
Ah, Jacob sat. Or as most translate, Jacob dwelt. But for the meditative among us, this opening line can be read as a lovely little hint to sitting in meditation. Jacob is finally winding down years of frenzied activity and is ready to taste some much-earned introspection and tranquility.
Just contrast this parsha title with the last two: Vayeitze and Vayishlach – “Jacob went out” and “Jacob sent over”. Both of these active verbs punctuate his dramatic tale of a murderous brother, greedy Uncle, nuptial dupings, and on and on. Finally, it seems that Jacob has returned to his homeland to enjoy some serenity.
Yes, that serenity will be shattered a few short paragraphs away with the “death” of his beloved Joseph. But for now, for this moment, Jacob sits. Jacob seeks serenity. And, who knows, maybe it was this one-verse worth of retreat from activity that will help him respond to the traumas to come. Maybe it is this sitting which will help him better endure whatever will come to be.
Finally found the serenity of
furled out beneath me,
terra ferma, nothing fancy,
but a marble carpet of quiet
in this once-livid living room.
All frenzy finally quelled
as a book of braille
that will not be read aloud today.
I am too busy
I am too busy
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Let Your Spirit Shine (5773/2012)
Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah teaches that Ya’akov has a secret spiritual name: Shemesh, sun.
The story of Ya’akov’s rupture and reconciliation with his brother is framed with allusions to the sun. As Ya’akov travels west, away from his brother, the sun sets – or, in Biblical Hebrew, “arrives” in the west. Twenty years later, after Ya’akov wrestles with the stranger and is ready to meet his brother, the sun rises – or, in Torah’s language, “the sun itself shines.”
Ya’akov, continues the midrash, believes that no other human being knows his secret name. Imagine Ya’akov’s surprise when his son Yosef dreams of the day the family will bow down to Yosef – a dream where Yosef’s father is represented as sun, his mother as moon, and his brothers as stars. Ya’akov rebukes his son for dreaming of mastery over his father; but inside himself, Torah says, “he guards the matter.” Some say he guards his own inner secrets more carefully.
Should Ya’akov be surprised that his beloved son has an intuition about his father’s psycho-spiritual growth? Should Ya’akov respond to the surprise by guarding himself more carefully? Or should he be pleased to be seen through the eyes of love? Should he allow his hard-won wisdom to shine – even if recalling its development is painful? A glimpse of his polished soul just might be helpful to his son!
Do you have hard-won wisdom that shines forth in the way you behave? Or is it hidden by memories of the struggles that helped you learn it? At Chanukah, we celebrate light bursting into the world. Accept that those who love you have seen your hidden light and learned from you. Shine on!
Dream Interpretation, Talmudic Style (5774/2013)
Through stories of Yosef the dreamer, Torah offers some basic guidelines for dream interpretation. Our Talmudic sages develop these in more detail (Berachot 55-57): Dreams carry symbolic messages from other realms. To discern a dream’s message, one must go beyond its literal meaning. Finding a correct interpretation, however, can be a delicate art. Here are four Talmudic guidelines, summarized in our sages’ own words.
(1) Interpret your dream: A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read. Whoever has a dream that makes them sad should go and have it interpreted in the presence of three.
(2) Look for meaning in the symbols: Three kings are important for dreams. Whoever sees David in a dream, may hope for piety; if Solomon, they may hope for wisdom; if Ahab, they should fear for punishment. If one sees an elephant in a dream, a miracle will be wrought.
(3) Separate meaningful symbols from literal nonsense: Just as wheat cannot be without straw, so there cannot be a dream without some nonsense. Even if part of a dream is fulfilled, the whole of it never is. From where do we know this? From the imagery in Yosef’s dream, as it is written, “And behold the sun and the moon bowed down to me” (Gen. 37:9), and at that time his mother [represented by the moon] was not living.
(4) Re-interpret, for multiple meanings are in any dream: R. Bana’ah said, “Once I dreamt a dream and went round to 24 interpreters. They all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled. The meaning of a dream follows the interpretation.”
Have you a recent dream that haunts your consciousness? Speak of it with your friends; learn what it means to them; discern the message you were meant to receive.
From Rabbi Naftali Citron
The idea of why the righteous suffer is explored in this week’s Zohar.
Based on the Zohar on Parshat Vayeshev
One idea is that when the body is weakened the soul is able to shine brighter. The problem with that is plenty of righteous people don’t suffer and their souls sour high. The Zohar offers a nuanced approach. The idea of the shechina being in exile is the root cause of the suffering of the righteous. This is because when above in the place that so to speak gives birth to the soul the Holy one blessed he is in a state of separation from the shechina the souls coming out are destined to have a hard time in this world. When the Talmud talks about suffering born out of love (yesurim shel ahava) this is what it’s referring to. So understanding a person needs to be connected to understanding the cosmos. Certain spiritual sensitivity is born out of exile and alienation that is rooted in the cosmic tzimtum (Divine concealment) and the shevirat hakelim (shattering of the vessels) of the world of Tohu. These two concepts are prominent in Lurianic Kabbalah. In the framework of the Zohar the shechina is likened to the moon as it is in other rabbinic teachings. The dark moon represents the state where the sephirah of Tifferet that is likened to the sun is not in a state of Sepherotic union with the moon. When this dis-union occurs it is a form of severe judgment that lies at the root of these suffering souls. The good news is that somehow these hardships that the good person endures will fix the brokenness of the shechina in exile. The Zohar has many descriptions of the reunification of the Holy One Blessed be He and the Shechina. They are haunting and beautiful and the Lecha Dodi that is chanted Friday night is synagogue is an example of how this idea can be expressed in words. The Zohar also believes in reincarnation and synthesizes the idea of the righteous suffering with the possibility that at times we can be fixing something from an earlier lifetime. The Zohar seems to reject one of the Talmudic explanation of the suffering of the righteous. The sage Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Yose (Brachot 7a) that the righteous one who suffers is a Tzaddik ben Rasha a righteous person who is a child of wicked person. A Tzaddik who has a good life is a Tzaddik ben Tzaddik a child of the righteous. The Zohar question’s that by simply observing that that isn’t always true.
In truth the Zohar realizes that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to suffering but rather many factors and behind them all is the mystery that even Moses couldn’t understand why the righteous suffer.
Shabbat Shalom and let us experience the Joy of the Shechina being reunited with the Holy One Blessed be He
From the Maqam Project
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
Being Now, Wanting Now- Parshat Vayeishev
A few years ago, I was at a Shabbat table where someone was describing the different character traits of Jacob and his brother Esau:
“Jacob could see the big picture. He planed for the future, while Esau only cared about satisfying his immediate desires. Esau lived in the here and now.”
I cringed when I heard that, because “living in the here and now” and “wanting something here and now” couldn’t be more different.
So many people don’t understand this difference!
Back at that Shabbat table, I tried to clarify this point, but I was unsuccessful. I hope to clarify it “now”.
Actually, my desire to clarify this point “now” is a perfect example to use.
When I say that I want to clarify this point “now”, I don’t mean “now” literally. I mean that I hope to clarify it by the end of this d’var. Which really means that I hope to clarify it in the near future. By the time you’re done reading this, I hope that the point will be clear.
In fact, whenever anyone says that they want something “now”, what they really mean is that they want their “now” to change into a different “now”. They may want it really fast… but “fast” is still the future.
This is the exact opposite of “being in the now” or “being present”.
To “be in the now” doesn’t mean that you want a different “now”. It means you’re just being in this now. There’s no conflict or tension in that- you’re just present.
In fact, you are the present; there’s not you, on one hand, and the present on the other. When you are present, you and the present are the same thing.
So when that guy talked about Jacob and Esau, he wasn’t talking about long-term planning versus being in the now. He was really talking about long-term planning versus short-term planning. Neither one is about the “now” at all.
And yet, there’s a way in which long-term planning can actually can help you be fully present.
When you know exactly where you’re going, you’re less likely to worry about what you’re going to have for dinner in a few hours. It just doesn’t matter that much. You have a long-term plan, so you can fully enjoy the journey. You can be present.
That’s the way Joseph is in this week’s reading. At the opening of our parsha, it says that Joseph is Israel’s favorite son. This makes Israel’s other sons jealous of Joseph. Then, Joseph does something to further upset them:
Joseph dreamt a dream that he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear, if you please, this dream that I dreamt: Behold! We were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! My sheaf arose and remained standing. Then, behold! Your sheaves gathered around and bowed to my sheaf.”
Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, he really ticks them off with a second dream: The sun, moon and eleven stars all bowed down to him, implying that one day he would rule over his eleven brothers, father and mother.
Why was Joseph unconcerned about upsetting his brothers with these dreams? Some say that Joseph was immature and vain. But I don’t think so. People who are immature and vain tend to complain when bad things happen to them.
His brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. When he later rises to be the most trusted and powerful slave in the house of his master, he is framed and thrown in the dungeon. Through all these calamities, he never once complains, never once gets angry, never even defends himself.
Because he trusts his dream and he knows where he is going.
Since he knows where he’s going, he doesn’t have to fuss much about how he gets there. His brothers are mad at him? No big deal, it will work out. Sold into slavery? There’s an interesting turn.
Everything that happens to him is merely a modulation of the present moment. Whatever it is, he’s there with it. He sees the big picture, and therefore he’s fully in the now.
In fact, his name embodies this quality. The Hebrew for Joseph is Yosef, which comes from the root that means “to increase”. No matter how terrible life gets, he pops back and increases toward his goal. He’s like cream- always rising to the top, never growing anxious or complaining. He just rides the story of his life, moving steadily toward his destiny.
There’s a story that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev saw a man hurrying down the street, bumping into things and knocking people over. The rabbi grabbed him and said, “Why are you rushing so?”
“I’m running to meet my destiny!” replied the man as he tried to break free from the rebbe’s grip.
“But how do you know that your destiny is in front of you?” argued the rebbe, “Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you have to do is slow down and let it catch up with you!”
On this Shabbat Vayieshev, the Shabbos of Dwelling, remember that to truly dwell in the Presence of the One who is only ever in the present, you don’t have to give up your dreams for the future. But, you don’t have to run after them either!
Instead, rest in the knowledge of where your ship is going- take the steps you need to move in that direction, then trust and enjoy the cruise, even when the world seems to be against you! And if you don’t know yet where you want to go, be present with the not knowing. In the silence, your dreams will reveal themselves.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
And a certain man found him [Joseph], and, behold, he was blundering about in the field. And the man asked him, saying: What do you seek? Gen.37:15
Rashi: this is the angel Gabriel. Ibn Ezra: a passerby. Ramban: the Holy One sent an unknowing guide.
A certain man.
A certain man, who?
Just a man. A guy.
What kind of guy?
Just a guy who happened to enter your story for a moment and because of that your story turns one way and not another. Knock-knock.
The angel Gabriel, messenger of the Holy One. I am here to steer your story in a particular direction, you are spinning off into something unexpected. I am here to push your story into surprise. Leave your expectations, you’re on a mystery ride. Knock-knock.
Maybe just a person who is pushing your story off in a certain direction that you will later think is inevitable. It isn’t inevitable. I’m a somebody. I show up at a critical place and send your story reeling off in some way that will be a challenge for you. It might take you a time to recover from the journey you are about to enter, you might never recover your former life, but some time later you will think about me, mark this moment as one of the most important of your life because you are going to learn something in the following chapters that you could not have learned if I had not appeared in your life at this time, this place, in just this way. Everything will change for you. Squeeze your story for what it means. Knock-knock.
Who is it? Come in already.
God or nature or the Grand Storyteller or whatever it is you believe in that moves your story along and those you love with you. You may ignore the knock-knock. You might pretend there is no knock-knock at all, but there is a knock-knock. Who’s there? I appear at a knock-knock moment in your life and through me, because I show up, everything, every single thing is about to change for you. In the future you will think it through: Who or what am I and what is it I have contributed to your life? What is your best response? You will remember this knock-knock moment and read it out for what it means. Knock-knock.
Take your time. You’ll figure it out.
“Joseph, Judah, and Hanukkah”
By Tamar Frankiel, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Liturgy
This week’s Torah reading begins the Joseph saga, which will take us to the end of the book of Bereishit. We begin with Jacob “settling” (vayeshev) but, as the midrash says, no sooner did he think he had settled than the “troubles with Joseph” began. Joseph’s story, from the tension with his brothers to being imprisoned in Egypt, occupies most of the parsha.
But the story line is interrupted by the tale of Judah, who “went down” away from his brothers, set up a business partnership, married a Canaanite woman, and had three sons. He marries one of them to Tamar, but the son dies. In accordance with levirate marriage, he marries her to the next brother, who also dies. The text makes clear that both the brothers died because of their own evil deeds, but Judah nevertheless will not allow her to be married to the third son. The ultimate outcome is that Judah himself is enticed by Tamar to have relations with her. She becomes pregnant and Judah is about to kill her, when she reveals that he is the father of her unborn twins. Tamar is therefore the ancestress of the Davidic line that comes from Judah.
Both Judah and Joseph are separated from the other brothers, though Judah later on rejoins them. This distinctiveness hints at their future destiny, to be revealed in the prominent deathbed blessings of Jacob. But the Sages also note another feature: Joseph becomes the prince in exile, in Pharaoh’s court; while Judah becomes the prince in the land of Israel, and ultimately ancestor of the Messiah of the Davidic line.
These two strands manifest in the two rabbinic holidays, Hanukkah and Purim. Purim is the holiday of exile in a strange land, where Jews struggle with the temptations of idolatry and the barbs and threats of antisemitism. Joseph is Pharaoh’s court is like Mordecai and Esther in the court of Achashverus.
Hanukkah, on the other hand, is a holiday that points to Judah – to the independence of the Jewish people on their own land, under the leadership of one of their own.
However, as our Sages have observed, Hanukkah is not merely political. The long-term struggle was and is about the inner corruption of Jewish ideals. Often “the Greeks” are blamed, but it was the peculiar attraction of Hellenistic culture that tugged at Jewish hearts and souls and turned them against one another. Ultimately the post-Maccabeean era became civil war.
This relates to the story of Judah. Whereas Joseph is tested and has to prove himself in Pharaoh’s court, Judah is tested in his family and in himself. He cannot be a leader unless he passes those tests.
Rashi says that he separated himself from his brothers because they blamed him for Jacob’s grief: “You said to sell him! If only you had said to return him, we would have listened to you” (Rashi on Genesis 38.1). Given the brothers’ history of complaining about Joseph’s favored position, this rings a bit hollow. They had left him to die in a pit, after all, and Judah appears to have been ameliorating the situation by suggesting they sell him instead so that “our hand will not be on him, for our brother is our flesh.” However, his comment immediately before reveals another dimension: “What profit is it if we kill our brother… Come, let’s sell him…” (Gen 37:26-27). As Rashi points out, betza, profit, means money. Judah sees an opportunity here.
Judah probably was angry at his brothers’ blaming him, but the deeper reason for separating himself was to discover the errors in his own perspective. What happens to Judah after he leaves and establishes his own family? He finds himself again close to murdering someone, his dead son’s wife. She had put herself in a dangerous situation, a “pit” to speak, to try to save herself from a humiliating situation. Following a momentary impulse, he purchased her services on a pledge of money, with the arrogance of a man who believes he is in control. Only his final confession saves him from his own evil: “She is more righteous than I.”
The story of the brothers is horrifying – their jealousy, their conspiratorial attitude, their willingness to murder even their own family members. Judah’s role is shameful as well, opportunistic and arrogant. They have all caused their father Jacob suffering so terrible that the midrash compares it to Job’s. In the end he tells Pharaoh, “Few and bad have been the years of my life” (Gen 47:8). The only saving grace is that Judah, in the end, brings the family’s pain to light in his encounter with Joseph (in Vayigash, Gen 44.18).
The struggles of Judah that opened him to humility, the honesty of Judah that cracked open the harsh façade of Joseph – these are like the “crack in everything – that’s how the light comes in.” This, more than external leadership, is what connects the archetype of Judah to the spiritual potential of Hanukkah. This is the role of the ancestor of the Messiah: to heal the wounds of the people Israel, to help us come together.
This year, let’s remember Hanukkah in its inner dimensions, and light the lights for other Jews to illuminate our deeper connections to one another.
From Rabbi David Kasher
The Evil Shepherd
Yosef: A Light in the Darkness
VAYESHEV | HANUKKAH
BY RABBI EITAN FISHBANE
Parashat Vayeshev takes us deep into the pain and alienation of being human, of yearning from a low place of darkness and suffering. And yet the narrative also conveys the power of hope—a longing for God and redemption, for spiritual and moral healing in our human relationships.
This week’s parashah crystallizes the dysfunctional family dynamics that are evident throughout the book of Genesis—the fraught father-son relationships, the painful intergenerational wounds of favoritism, the anger and resentment between siblings, and, deep down, the simple desire to be loved. Although we may cringe at the violence of the brothers toward Yosef, the narrative of Vayeshev also opens our hearts to the pain these sons felt at their father’s rejection—his greatest love reserved for Yosef: וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו (“Yisrael [i.e., Ya’akov] loved Yosef most of all his sons”) (Gen. 37:3).
The wound of this rejection, the longing to be loved, is further represented by the motif of the garment, the beged, in its various forms—most powerfully perhaps in the ketonet pasim, the coat of colors that Yosef wears. That is the site of the brothers’ grief-inducing dissimulation as they present their favored brother’s blood-stained cloak to their father, tricking him into the conclusion that his son has been killed and devoured by a wild animal: וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ טָרֹף טֹרַף יוֹסֵף (“He [Ya’akov] said: ‘It is my son’s cloak; a wild animal has eaten him! Yosef has been torn apart!’”) (37:33). The garment is the instrument of deception (begidah) elsewhere in the parashah as well—in the veil of Tamar (which she uses to disguise herself in seducing Yehudah, 38:14–19), in the clothing of Yosef in the lying hands of Potiphar’s wife, left behind in his flight from her advances (39:11–18). Beged and begidah, garment and deception.
In symmetry, the garments of both Ya’akov and Reuven are highlighted in the dramatic expression of grief, the tearing of clothing as a gesture of mourning. In the case of Reuven, we may also observe the portrayal of compassion—he returns to the pit, planning to rescue his brother who, alas, has already been sold by the others into slavery: וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל הַבּוֹר וְהִנֵּה אֵין יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר וַיִּקְרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו (“Reuven returned to the pit, and behold Yosef was not in the pit, and he ripped his garments”) (Gen. 37:29). Reuven’s return, וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן, communicates the ideal of compassion; metaphorically, we may read it as the need to enter the place of the empty pit in the world, to lift up those among us who may have fallen into the dark places of suffering and hopelessness.
Yosef’s absence both underscores Reuven’s despair at his failed attempt to save his brother, and, at a more figurative level of meaning, may be said to symbolize the parched and empty sense of spiritual alienation—the thirst felt in the absence of the living waters of Divinity. Yosef’s name is thus read creatively as an allusion to the overflow of divine abundance (hosafah/Yosef); the surplus of Divine Presence and vitality is the “Yosef-dimension” of existence, whereas the pit empty of water represents a state of being in which the life-giving energies of God are absent—leaving the human being in a disoriented condition of extreme spiritual thirst. As it was said a few verses earlier, when Yosef was first cast into the pit: וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם (“The pit was empty, it contained no water”) (v. 24).
If Vayeshev teaches us profound lessons about the fragility of love, about family, deception, and vulnerability, it also may be read (as it has been by generations of spiritual masters) as wisdom about the soul’s yearning for Divine Presence, about the intersecting threads of hardship, struggle, and the devotional quest. The figure of Yosef may be understood as a paradigm for the cry of prayer, the wail from the depths of suffering, of being lost in the world; Yosef represents the struggle to rise from the sunken place of despair, the dark place of Mitzrayim (Egypt)—both as a struggle through adversity, but also as the life-process of redeeming hidden divine light from even the most coarse and constraining elements of materiality and mundane existence. The pit into which Yosef is cast by his jealous brothers is akin in this reading to the painful and narrow place of Egypt, the metzarim of Mitzrayim. וַיַּעֲלֵנִי מִבּוֹר שָׁאוֹן (“He lifted me out of the miry pit”), sings the Psalmist (Ps. 40:3). It is that same hope expressed in this Psalm (‘קַוֹּה קִוִּיתִי ה [“I put my hope in YHVH”] [v. 2]) that is embodied in the figure of Yosef.
According to Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, a late eighteenth-century Hasidic master, this was the reason the Torah speaks about Yosef’s descent into Egypt. It is to teach us that in creating the world, God placed a luminous divine spark—a portion of the transcendent Divine essence, חלק א-לוהי ממעל, into the darkness of matter, into the seemingly profane realms of ordinary existence. Here too we observe a play on the name of Yosef: an extra abundance of light is drawn from the darkness of materiality, and the figure of Yosef represents an addition, tosefet (Yosef/hosafah/tosefet)—an extra measure of divine light that may bring the promise of redemption, illuminating the eyes and opening the heart to God. The primordial light was hidden within the darkness so that we too might find our way back to Divinity even when we feel we are in the darkest of places. Like the traces of a pathway out of the woods, the fragments of divine light may lead us from the forest of darkness—that we are lost, and yet may be found once again.
Thus are the lessons of Vayeshev and Hanukkah intertwined: in these, the darkest hours of the year, the flames are lit to remind us of the wonder and beauty that is still possible, the hope that may warm us even on the coldest and most bleak of winter nights—of the divine נסים ונפלאות, the miracles and wonders that may yet lie hidden. It is a time of התחדשות, of renewal, of not letting our spiritual vitality become stale and uninspired. Let us instead strive to be always like Yosef, the youth (נער), which the late nineteenth-century Sefat Emet reads as representing the energy of התעוררות, awakening—an interpretive play on the similar sounds of these two Hebrew words.
In all the passing moments that have the potential to fall into the pit of routine, boredom, and superficiality, may we be blessed with the sparkle of childhood wonder, with an awareness of Creation renewed. Spirit of the world, open our hearts to hope and to gratitude for our many blessings; fill us with the passion to be ever-awake to the sacred mystery and sublime gift of this all-too-fleeting human life.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Improbable Endings and the Defeat of Despair
From Jewish Sacred Aging
Vayeshev: The Life Long Task: What Are We Seeking?
Rabbi Richard Address
Vayeshev is one of the most sweeping and dramatic of all our portions. It is the beginning of the Joseph cycle, We are introduced immediately in Genesis 37 to the sibling issues of Joseph and his brothers and Jacob’s favoritism. We see the drama played out as Joseph is thrust into the pit and taken to Egypt. We read o the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife (39f) and the imprisonment and the eventual rise of Joseph to a position of authority based on his ability to interpret dreams. The dream theme is powerful as it initiates his brothers’ jealousy and is the means of his salvation in Egypt. Curiously, the portion stops the story of Joseph in Genesis 38 to tell the story of Judah and Tamar (a story we rarely include in religious school) and we meet again themes of deception and the importance of children. This is a rich portion filled with drama, emotion and ethical challenges.
For this week, however, I wanted to remind us of 1 passage. Genesis [37:15]. This one passage, I think, for us as we get older carries with it a powerful message. We include this text in the discussions we do in Jewish Sacred Aging workshops on positive aging as seen from Torah. Jacob asks Joseph to go find his brothers who have gone off to tend the families flocks. Joseph takes his “many-colored” coat/tunic and sets off. On the way he meets a man, an “ish”. This man asks one question and then is gone. As many commentators suggest, this “man” is a key figure for without this brief encounter, the story of the Jews would have changed. This man tells Joseph where to find his brothers. However, he first asks the question: “mah t’vakesh”: what are you seeking? We may have expected him to ask “who are you seeking?”
Why is this important for us? Let me suggest that this “man” (angel/messenger?) reminds us that we are all “seekers”. He reminds us that no matter what age we may be, Judaism points us to the future. It reminds us that as long as we have breathe we are given the mandate to seek what out own purpose may be. “What are you seeking?” asks this never identified man. What are you seeking? What am I seeking? What do we seek as we get older? What purpose to we desire for us as we set about on this chapter of our life? Do we see our future as expanding and growing, or do we see it as waiting to die? What is it that I wish my life to mean? What of me do I wish to leave behind?
Just as this man’s question sets in motion the future of Judaism, let this question set in motion the rest of our life. What do we seek: for us, for our families, for our community? The answer to that question rests within our soul. We just need to courage to answer it and then live it.
Rabbi Richard F Address
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