You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayeishev.
From reform judaism.org
A Solitary Mission
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI KARYN D. KEDAR
I too have known loneliness. I too have known what it is to feel misunderstood, rejected, and suddenly not at all beautiful. Oh, mother earth, your comfort is great, your arms never withhold. It has saved my life to know this. Your rivers flowing, your roses opening in the morning. Oh, motions of tenderness!
– Mary Oliver, Blue Horses: Poems
The story of Joseph is the story of a solitary man, driven, visioning, dreaming, ambitious, misunderstood, and the object of much disdain. It is the story of heroic and tenacious leadership. Many a contemporary leader can relate. Leadership by its very nature is a tug of war between one’s desire to actualize a sense of destiny and striving to meet the immediate needs of others. Leaders feel that they are uniquely called upon to achieve something important. To be driven by dream and possibility is lonely work.
This is how I imagine Joseph. His father sends him on a mission. Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answers, “Hineini,” I am here” (Genesis 37:13). We have witnessed this ancestral declaration before, as if Torah teaches us that the essence of theology is a simple call and response. We are called, summoned, pushed, pulled, commanded and we simply respond, “Hineini,” I am here, do with me what you will.
Some rabbis say that Joseph’s response is obedience: “Yes Father, I will do as you say” (Ibn Ezra). Some say that it is a kind of naïveté, a belief that the brothers who hate him will cause him no harm (Malbim). Some say it was an expression of humility. Somehow, he knows that despite the danger, Israel, his father, the man who struggled with angels, the connection to all of Jewish history, has asked him to step into the destiny of the Jewish people. Joseph answers with humility. I am here, he says quietly (Rashi).
And so, Joseph sets out to find his brothers. The Torah states that he “to’eh” in the field. The word “to’eh” means to err, to wander, to go astray, to stagger. It is such an odd word choice that the same rabbis when commenting on the word hinieni cannot help but question what Joseph was doing in the field. Some say he strayed from the path, almost drunk. Some say he lost his way. Others say he was following a sheep’s path, looking for his brother’s flock. Others say that he was walking the zig zag of destiny — sometimes with a sense of mission, sometimes feeling lost, sometimes tracing the steps of another, always alone, solitary.
I too have aimlessly wandered the field of loneliness. Such is the spiritual path. At times it is like a ladder. Jacob saw that ladder. A hard, slow climb toward self-awareness, self-actualization. It is a journey towards spiritual fulfillment, towards an expansive sense of God and transcendent beauty. It is made one rung at a time. Straight up.
At times the spiritual path is like a deep well. Miriam saw that well. She knew where to find the depth of nourishment, even in the wilderness. It is like digging deeper and ever deeper, tapping into the complexities of the human condition, searching the depths of the soul, finding the rivers of wisdom, the wellspring of goodness.
At times it’s like an upward spiral, climbing, twisting, turning, ascending. With each turn there is a familiar landscape but seen from a different perspective. We rise, healing, correcting, evolving, aspiring, reaching for the heights of a loving consciousness.
Joseph’s spiritual path is in a vast unknown field. He is mission driven, yet he is a bit lost, wandering, staggering in a zig zag. Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, the 15th century Italian biblical commentator, poses the ultimate question of any spiritual seeker. What are you looking for, he asks, seeing that you do not keep to the known paths? This is an existential question that tugs at the core of our sense of destiny. Are we to be spiritually found in a paradox, driven with the mission to find meaning yet aimlessly wandering alone upon unknown paths? Does the seeker ultimately walk alone, sometimes known and seen, sometimes feeling invisible, always private?
This week’s Torah portion suggests to me that the solitary seeker is not necessarily lonely. Joseph’s dreams seem to ground him, fortify him with a sense of higher purpose. He does not seem afraid. He is seeking. And, in this context, he is found. A man (ish) came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” (Genesis 37:15).
The commentator ibn Ezra says this man was a passerby. Rashi identifies the man as the angel Gavriel, God is my strength, for he was indeed in need of strength. Ramban says that God sent Joseph guidance in the form of a gaggle of angels, “for these events did not occur without purpose, but rather to inform us that ‘it is the counsel of the Eternal that shall stand” ‘ (Proverbs 19:21) .
Joseph’s question of the man is simple, practical: “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?” (Genesis 37:16) It’s like that sometimes. In a casual seemingly inauspicious moment, events occur and things change forever. The man replied, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So, Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan (37:17).
The angels of destiny send him to his brothers. He is then attacked, sold into slavery in Egypt, spends time in a dungeon, interprets the right dream at the right moment and is in a position of power when his brothers seek his help in a time of famine back home. Forgiveness and redemptive love bring the family back together. All is well until decades later, when a new Pharaoh rises to power who does not know the story of Joseph. History evolves from this encounter. Joseph, lost in a field, comes upon a man. The man says, “this way,” and a path unfolds.
After all, our life is a mission, a solitary impulse to find meaning, to quiet down the frenetic doing of life and to still the constant hum, the soundtrack of our distraction. Within our dreams, or our visions, or premonitions, we are working out of the knots that tangle our soul. And then, in solitary moment, we have a meeting that propels us, pushes us, impels us. It is an invitation for those of us who reach for the heavens to deepen our spiritual journey, dig deep into the unknown, wander through a fertile field. It is here where we who are seekers are found.
From The Mussar Institute
By Rabbi Michael Satz
If you have ever been in a heated discussion with your spouse, partner or another loved one (of course it wasn’t an argument), you know that one of the worst things to say is “chill out” because what the other person might be hearing is: “You are not being rational. Your emotions are taking over. You should relax and then you will see that you are being silly.”
Yes, we should all try not to argue, but that is your fault as much as your spouse’s. We should also care passionately about our views and experiences. When sometimes says “chill out” they are trying to shut down conversion and not caring about the world and how things are going is not a productive way to engage with the world. Global pandemic, economic collapse caused by said pandemic, erosion of democracy—just chill, you don’t have to worry or care. That’s ridiculous.
At the same time, the opposite also seems ridiculous. By worrying too much about things that we cannot control personally our lives will be filled with grief, and we could feel paralyzed to engage.
So, what might a Mussar stance be? Of course, the middle way is usually called for depending on the situation.
In this week’s parashah, Vayeishev we read:
וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן:
Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 37:1)
In one of my favorite comments on this verse, Rashi writes:
וישב ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף. צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקב”ה לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:
Dwelt: When Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility. Said the Holy Blessed One, “What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them, but they seek [also] to dwell in tranquility in this world!?!”
Here we have Jacob back in the land that will be named after him (Israel), with his wives and children after many ordeals. He thinks that he is going to just settle down and “chill.” Yet, in the very next verse, we learn about Joseph and his brothers. We’ve seen the musical, and we know that the brothers just bring Jacob tzuris. Jacob wants to chill, but life is filled with troubles. Rashi puts into the mouth of God, “What, you think that a Jew can just chill?”
No, we can’t just chill. We are called to be engaged with the world but not overwhelmed by the world. One step at a time, with faith, we do what we can to make the world a little better by being engaged in relationships and societal issues. The Torah doesn’t call for us to be hermits, and our path gives us the dignity to be busy with the messiness of life. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said, “As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that this person is remote from true service.” This is menuchat ha’nefesh/tranquility of the soul, not being “chilled.” It is the equanimity we need to face life. Rav Salanter is saying that we should not be content with the way things are. We have a vision of how things ought to be, and we do what little we can to move towards that better world. One of my rabbinic role models, Rabbi Leo Baeck, said it this way, “Whoever possesses spirit, that person’s conscience is never satisfied, never stilled.
Rabbi Israel Salanter: As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in
the service of God, it is clear that this person is remote from true service.
It is a never-ending task. Like Jacob, we never truly get to “dwell in tranquility,” but this is what gives us a life of meaningful purpose. Our decisions and actions done with equanimity matter. We are not overwhelmed or underwhelmed by life. We take the good and the bad in stride.
I am fatigued and feel powerless by the pandemic, but I know that I can do little things like wearing a mask and social distancing to keep me and others safe. It makes a difference. I am not “dwelling” in indifference or “dwelling” in debilitating fear.
During Hanukkah, our Festival of Light, I pray that we can face tomorrow with the light of equanimity. Our ancestors who fought for a more light-filled world did not take the option to “chill,” nor were they overwhelmed with despair. May we be inspired by this strength.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Power of Praise
Reuben is the leader who might have been but never was. He was Jacob’s firstborn. Jacob said of him on his deathbed, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honour, excelling in power.” (Gen. 49:3) This is an impressive tribute, suggesting physical presence and commanding demeanour.
More significantly, in his early years Reuben consistently appeared to be the most morally sensitive of Jacob’s children. He was Leah’s son, and keenly felt his mother’s disappointment that she was not Jacob’s favourite. Here is the first description of him as a child:
During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. (Gen. 30:14)
Mandrakes were thought to be an aphrodisiac. Reuben knew this and immediately thought of his mother. It was a touching gesture but it misfired because he presented them to Leah in the presence of Rachel and unintentionally caused an argument between them.
The next episode in which we see Reuben is far more troubling:
Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrat, that is, Bethlehem… While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept [vayishkav] with his father’s concubine Bilhah … (Gen. 35:19-22)
If understood literally this would amount to a major sin. Sleeping with your father’s concubine was not only a sexual crime; it was an unforgivable act of treason and betrayal, as we discover later in Tanach when Absalom decides to rebel against his father David and replace him as king. Ahitophel gives him the following advice:
“Sleep with your father’s concubines, whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” (2 Samuel 16:21)
According to the Sages, the text about Reuben is not to be understood literally. After Rachel died, Jacob had moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. This, felt Reuben, was an intolerable humiliation for his mother. It was hard for Leah to endure the fact that Jacob loved her sister more. It would have been altogether unbearable for her to discover that he even preferred Rachel’s handmaid. So Reuben moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s. The verb vayishkav should therefore be translated not as “slept with” but “changed the sleeping arrangement.”
At this point, however, the text does a strange thing. It says, “Reuben went in and slept with [or changed the sleeping arrangement of] his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it …” and then signals a paragraph break in the middle of the sentence. The sentence ends: “Jacob had twelve sons.” This is very unusual indeed. What it suggests is an audible silence. Communication had completely broken down between Jacob and Reuben. If the Sages are correct in their interpretation, then this is one of the greatest tragedies in the whole of Genesis. Jacob clearly believed that Reuben had slept with his concubine Bilhah. He cursed him for it on his deathbed:
Unstable as water, you will not excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch, and defiled it. (Gen. 49:4)
Yet according to the Sages, this did not happen. Had Jacob been willing to speak to Reuben he would have discovered the truth, but Jacob grew up in a family that lacked open, candid communication (as we saw a few weeks ago, during our discussion of parshat Toldot). Thus, for many years Reuben was suspected by his father of a sin he had not committed – all because he cared about the feelings of his mother.
Which brings us to the third episode in Reuben’s life, the most tragic of all. Jacob favoured Joseph, son of his beloved Rachel, and the other brothers knew it. When he gave Joseph a visible sign of favouritism, the richly embroidered cloak, the brothers resented it yet more. When Joseph began to have dreams of the rest of the family bowing down to him, the brothers’ animosity reached boiling point. When they were far from home, tending the flocks, and Joseph appeared in the distance, their hatred made them decide then and there to kill him. Reuben alone resisted:
When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him [Joseph] from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father. (Gen. 37:21-22)
Reuben’s plan was simple. He persuaded the brothers not to kill Joseph but rather to let him die by leaving him to starve in a pit. He intended to return later, when the brothers had moved on, to rescue him. When he returned, however, Joseph was no longer there. He had been sold as a slave. Reuben was devastated.
Three times Reuben tried to help but despite his best intentions, his efforts failed. He was responsible for the one recorded quarrel between Leah and Rachel. His father wrongly suspected him of a major sin and cursed him on his deathbed. He failed to save Joseph. Reuben knew when things were not right, and tried to act to make changes for the better, but he somehow lacked the prudence, confidence or courage to achieve his desired outcome. He should have waited for Leah to be alone before giving her the mandrakes. He should have remonstrated directly with his father about his sleeping arrangements. He should have physically taken Joseph safely back home.
What happened to Reuben to make him lack confidence? The Torah gives a poignant and unmistakable hint. Listen to these verses describing the birth of Leah’s (and Jacob’s) first two children:
When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon. (Gen. 29:32-33)
Both times, it was Leah, not Jacob, who named the child – and both names were a cry to Jacob to notice her and love her – if not for herself then at least because she has given him children. Jacob evidently did not notice.
Reuben became what he became because – so the text seems to imply – his father’s attention was elsewhere; he did not care for either Leah or her sons (the text itself says, “the Lord saw that Leah was not loved”). Reuben knew this and felt intensely his mother’s shame and his father’s apparent indifference.
People need encouragement if they are to lead. It is fascinating to contrast the hesitant Reuben with the confident – even overconfident – Joseph, who was loved and favoured by his father. If we want our children to have the confidence to act when action is needed, then we have to empower, encourage and praise them.
There is a fascinating Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers:
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five (pre-eminent) disciples, namely Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. He used to recount their praise: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus – a plastered well that never loses a drop. Joshua ben Chananya – happy the one who gave him birth. Yose the Priest – a pious man. Shimon ben Netanel – a man who fears sin. Elazar ben Arach – an ever-flowing spring. (Mishnah Avot 2:10-11)
Why does the Mishnah, whose aim is to teach us lasting truths, give us this apparently trivial account of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s pupils and how he used to praise them? The answer, I believe, is that the Mishnah is telling us how to raise disciples, how to be a coach, mentor and guide: by using focused praise.
The Mishnah does not simply say that Yochanan ben Zakkai said good things about his students. It uses an unusual locution: “He used to count [moneh] their praise”, meaning, his positive remarks were precise and accurately targeted. He told each of his disciples what their specific strength was.
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus had an outstanding memory. At a time when the Oral Law was not yet written down, he could recall the teachings of the tradition better than anyone else. Elazar ben Arach was creative, able to come up with an endless stream of fresh interpretations. When we follow our particular passions and gifts, we contribute to the world what only we can give.
However, the fact that we may have an exceptional gift may also mean that we have conspicuous deficiencies. No one has all the strengths. Sufficient if we have one. But we must also know what we lack. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus became so fixated on the past that he resisted change even when it was decided on by the majority of his colleagues. Eventually he was excommunicated for failing to accept his colleagues’ ruling (Baba Metzia 59b).
Elazar ben Arach’s fate was even sadder. After the death of Yochanan ben Zakkai, he separated from his colleagues. They went to Yavneh; he went to Hamat (Emmaus). It was a pleasant place to live and it was where his wife’s family lived. Apparently he was so confident of his intellectual gifts that he believed he could maintain his scholarship by himself. Eventually he forgot everything he had ever learned (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 14: 6). The man more gifted than his contemporaries eventually died while making almost no lasting contribution to the tradition.
There is a delicate balance between the neglect that leads to someone to lack the confidence to do the necessary deed, and the excessive praise or favouritism that creates overconfidence and the belief that you are better than others. That balance is necessary if we are to be the sunlight that helps others grow.
 See Shabbat 55a-b
From the Hebrew College
I Dreamed a Dream
By Rabbi Avi Strausberg
We have dreamed a dream and there is no one to interpret it. This verse from this week’s Parshat Vayeishev strikes me as painfully sad. It is the voice of two people who are lost and disempowered, who find themselves unable to make meaning of the world around them.
In this week’s parsha, Joseph, after refusing the advances of Pharaoh’s wife, finds himself thrown into the dungeon, with the Chief Baker and the Chief Cupbearer as his fellow prisoners. The Baker and the Cupbearer wake in the morning, enveloped in the memory of the previous night’s dreams, and they are visibly troubled. Joseph asks, “Why are your faces sad today?” They respond, “We have dreamed a dream and there is no one to interpret it.” Joseph responds, “Don’t interpretations belong to God?”
We can interpret Joseph’s response one of two ways. Perhaps, Joseph is saying, “Of course there is no one to interpret your dreams. Why look to a human interpreter? Only God can interpret dreams.” Or, perhaps Joseph is saying, “Do not despair. There is, in fact, an interpreter, and that interpreter is none other than God.” Either way, what happens next is surprising. After instructing them that God is the only interpreter, Joseph then offers to step into this role previously reserved for God and to interpret their dreams himself.
One at a time, they share their dreams with Joseph, and one at a time, he offers his interpretation. The Cupbearer goes first, and Joseph responds by offering a positive interpretation, assuring the Cupbearer that in just three days time he will be restored to his position. The Baker, buoyed by the Cupbearer’s interpretation, says “Me too!” and asks Joseph to interpret his dream as well. Unfortunately for the Baker, his interpretation foretells a future of doom and gloom, namely his head on the gallows in just three days time. And just as Joseph interpreted, so too it unfolds. In three days time, the Cupbearer is restored to his position and the Baker meets his final end. As it’s taught in Massechet Berachot, “All dreams following the mouth of the interpreter.” Meaning just as it’s interpreted, so too will it happen. The dream itself does not have the power to determine the course of future events; rather, it’s the interpretation of this dream that shapes one’s fate.
The Cupbearer and the Baker dream a dream and not knowing what it meant, they turn their lives over to a stranger. They give Joseph the power to interpret their dreams and in doing so, the power to determine their future. But, what if instead of feeling powerless in the course of their confusion, they felt empowered? What if instead of relying on someone else to interpret their dreams, they served as their own interpreters?
In Massechet Berachot, Rav Yochanan teaches that if a dream leaves a person feeling distraught, he should have his dream interpreted by a committee of three. This would seem to suggest that we should, in fact, turn to others to interpret our dreams for us. And yet, the Gemara immediately responds, didn’t Rav Hisda teach that a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not opened? Perhaps, it’s better to leave that dream uninterpreted. As long as that distressing dream is sealed tight in the envelope, it can have no effect on the dreamer. Once you open that envelope and interpret that dream, there’s no going back.
So, what should you do? The Gemara responds: don’t turn to a committee of three to interpret your dream; rather, amongst a group of three, you should initiate a ritual to make it better yourself. You should say, “I dreamed a good dream,” even if this is not true, even if things look dismal, and the three repeat after you, “It is good, let it be good, God will make it good.” The community is there to offer affirmation but ultimately, the dreamer takes control of her fate. The dreamer transforms her own destiny.
Ameimar, Rav Zutra, and Rav Ashi offer another way a dreamer may respond to a distressing dream. At the moment during prayer when the priests lift their hands to offer the community the Priestly Blessing, he should say the following:
Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others, if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph. And if the dreams require healing, heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy, and like Hezekiah from his illness, and like the bitter waters of Jericho by Elisha. And just as You transformed the curse of Balaam the wicked into a blessing, so transform all of my dreams for me for the best.
The dreamer should conclude this prayer at the moment that the community responds amen to the Priestly Blessing so that their amen responds not only to the Priestly Blessing but serves to offer affirmation to the dreamer’s prayer, one in the same.
Both of these texts suggest that when one is confounded or distressed by a dream, or let’s say the events in one’s life, one shouldn’t give these events over to an external party to interpret and make sense of them. Rather, the dreamer must hold onto the reins of his own life. The dreamer has the power to re-interpret them, to transform them from negative to positive, and the community’s role is to offer affirmation and support.
As we read this week’s parsha, let us not be like the Cupbearer and the Baker who turn their dreams over to Joseph. Rather, when we wake in the morning, when we dream a dream and we do not know what it is, let us recognize that we are the interpreters of our dreams. The dream follows the mouth of the interpreter. May our dreams be strengthened like the dreams of Joseph, and may we find healing like the healing of Miriam. May we hold on to the power to determine the shape of our lives, recognizing that our dreams are in our hands.
1 Massechet Berachot 55b
2Massechet Berachot 55b
A reflection on Joseph
In Canaan you were clueless about your bothers. The gates of dreaming were open to you before the gates of understanding. You thought your dreams were all about you. You were a narcissist, said the rabbi (R. Jonathan Sacks). That’s what brought you down, sent you to Egypt.
In Potiphar’s house, says the Midrash, as master of all his affairs, you were vain. The gates of appearance and success were open to you before the gates of understanding. Potiphar’s wife saw you and knew that you were on her wavelength. But you were a narcissist and clueless about her. That’s what brought you down, and sent you to prison.
In prison you learned suffering. And suffering opened the gates of understanding. Understanding released you from the prison of yourself. Now, free at last, you could also enter into the dreams of others. And by entering into the dreams of others, you could fulfill God’s purpose for you.
Free from the prison of self, with the gates of understanding open, you will later say to your brothers with love, “Don’t worry. Don’t see yourselves with angry eyes… For it was to preserve life that God sent me here before you… to insure your survival in the land, and keep you alive for a great deliverance.”
As I reflect on your dreams and think of my own, I’m left with more questions than answers. Why did God need us to suffer 400 years of slavery before revealing His true glory? Why did God need us to suffer repeatedly in the 3000 years since? What happened to our dreams of America, and our dreams of Israel? What happened to our dreams of a better world for everyone?
Reflecting on your story, maybe I’ll learn to interpret these dreams as the gates of understanding open. As I free myself from the prison of self. As I learn to enter into the dreams of everyone around me. As I align with the One who sent me here to preserve life.
From Maggid Jhos Singer
The teaching gam zu l’tovah/even-this-is-for-the-good emphasizes that there are things in the world that are nistar/hidden and nigleh/revealed. Often, we are experiencing something in its nistar state, passing judgment on it, and then being either relieved or freaked out when it becomes nigleh and its true nature is apparent. Rather than trusting our own analysis, the mystical tradition offers us the technology of meeting everything exactly where it is by viewing life through the lens of gam zu l’tovah. Whether I’m dealing with the revealed state or the hidden state, it’s my practice to accept whatever is good in the situation. I can say, quite honestly, that this practice has saved my life on many occasions.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23) sets into motion the story of our fabulous patriarch Joseph. His life is a wild ride. He begins as a privileged daddy’s boy who is later betrayed by his jealous brothers who sell him into slavery. He becomes his master’s favorite and most trusted employee, only to be falsely accused of sexual harassment by his master’s wife—which lands him in prison where he becomes the warden’s favorite inmate. His skill of dream interpretation gets him out of prison and into Pharaoh’s palace where he becomes—you guessed it—the Pharaoh’s favorite… and it goes on and on like this until the final punch line, which might as well have been “gam zu l’tovah”.
I read this story year after year. I know how it ends. This foreknowledge makes it positively delightful to wade through the muck with Joseph, assured that everything is going to come out right in the end. And in a way, that foreknowledge is a spiritual impediment. Now I have to work at being empathetic to Joseph’s suffering, his grief, his loneliness, and his fear because I know he’s heading for a stupendously happy ending. But Joseph? He has no way of knowing if he is going to stay enslaved or imprisoned for the rest of his life. He has to live with the fact that his brothers hated him so much that they were willing to kill him. He doesn’t know if he will ever see his beloved father ever again. It’s a tragic and traumatic story…with a happy ending.
Actually, Joseph is an example of a particular kind of spiritual archetype who never gives up or gives in to his despair. In fact, it almost seems like he thrives on crisis. He finds himself in several actual pits, and then he has a project: how am I going to get out? That is a practical application of gam zu l’tovah. He figures out where his resources are, both internally and externally. He trusts his skills and seems to have endless faith in the goodness of others. He doesn’t apportion any energy to negativity, or fantasize about revenge, or bear any grudges.
If Joseph did lose his faith or his cool on occasion, the Torah doesn’t include those moments in the story. Which may be the point. I think it’s pretty unlikely that Joseph never felt rage, or hate, or despair, or at least frustration, given the serious tribulations he faced. So why would the Torah omit those moments from the story? Perhaps the tradition is trying to shine a light on just how powerful and transformative it is to practice finding a way forward, even when you land in a pit. Joseph had to constantly muster his compassion, patience, and stillness in order to see the hand holds he needed to raise himself up. He had to dedicate as much focus as he could to making minute-by-minute gains, tiny moves forward, and the slow but steady commitment to stay true to his nature, no matter what others did to him. Every assault was another opportunity to take a deep breath, and come through it saying, “Gam zu l’tovah”.
And that is what Shabbat is too—just another gal-darned growth opportunity—a time to find the good, even in a broken and breaking world. Time to look for beauty even in the bottom of a pit. Time to breathe, and feel your center, reach out a hand, and maybe even pull someone else up.
From My Jewish Learning
The thoughts of a shepherd may be sublime, but they cannot take him away from the task at hand.
BY FIVEL Y. GLASSER
Our ancestors were shepherds. The Torah tells us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rachel, and King David all herded goats and sheep. And in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we see that Joseph also worked as a shepherd alongside his brothers (Genesis 37:2).
The greatest of our early Jewish leaders chose this profession, a livelihood scorned by surrounding cultures. Years after Joseph’s exile to Egypt and rise to viceroy of the king of Egypt, when his brothers came to him in exile, Joseph presented them to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. The question that most interested the king was: “What is your occupation?” “We are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “like our fathers before us (Genesis 47:3).” Shepherding was not a respected occupation in Egypt, and Pharaoh relegated Joseph’s family to the far-off land of Goshen.
Why did so many of the original leaders of the Jewish people choose to become shepherds? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, explains that the advantage of shepherding may be found in the secluded lifestyle of the shepherd. While engaged with flocks, ambling through the hills and valleys, the shepherd is cut off from the noisy distractions of society, thus enabling ample time for inner reflection.
Solitude vs. Connection
Additionally, the labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, shepherding does not require one to exert a great deal of energy in mundane matters. Nevertheless, the shepherd is concerned with the actual physical needs of the flock. A shepherd does not live in an ivory tower, immersed in artificial philosophies detached from life; rather, the shepherd is constantly engaged with the real world, seeking water, shade, and good fodder for animals. The thoughts and musings of the shepherd may be sublime and lofty, but they cannot take the shepherd away from the task at hand.
This explanation requires further examination, especially for Rabbi Kook, who throughout his writing emphasizes the importance of the individual’s connection and contribution to society. What is the value of seclusion and solitude? Is the desire for solitude a positive trait? How do we balance reclusive behavior with the greater ideals of refining humanity and elevating the universe? In other words: Is the ideal to connect to the world, or to disconnect?
Let us first examine through the teachings of Rabbi Kook what occurs when one engages in the inner-reflection that exemplifies “shepherd consciousness.” Rabbi Kook writes in Orot Hakodesh (volume 3, p. 270):
“The greater the soul, the more it must struggle in order to find itself; the more the depths of the human soul are hidden from the conscious mind. One must have extended solitude and hitbodedut (self-reflective prayer), examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”
In order to cultivate one’s own greatness, it is necessary to develop a deep soul-awareness. This is best accomplished through silence and isolation. When one truly engages in such a practice, it will inevitably have a positive influence both in one’s own life and also on one’s surroundings. The intent of this withdrawal is ultimately to have a positive impact on the larger world, and not for mere personal spiritual fulfillment.
The goal is not to engage in a personal spiritual path that is disassociated from the rest of the world. Rather, the aspiration is the opposite–the solitude of the shepherd ultimately enables him to reconnect and even provide for the larger world on a spiritual level.
The silence of the shepherd is not just the absence of speech. It is a sublime language of silence, flowing from an outpouring of the soul, a vehicle of ruah hakodesh (Divine inspiration). The depths of the soul demand silence. Silence is full of life, revealing treasures from the beauty of wisdom.
Yet today’s hi-tech, DSL-connected world does not leave enough space for an individual to hear silence. Even with wireless access, are we able to access the inner recesses of our own being?
Rebbe Nahman of Breslov teaches that a Jew should spend one hour a day in hitbodedut. This means that every Jewish person should set aside a significant period of time to simply be with God. Not to pray formally, study, or engage in mitzvot–rather, to simply be. It can include mundane conversation with God, or soul-wrenching self-analysis.
In this sacred time we can come to taste the Divine encounter that our forefathers taught us through their example as shepherds. This one hour of being with God–of simply being–will come to inform how we are and what we do in the world.
When we are too caught up in experiencing the world without “shepherd consciousness” we tend to make decisions from our own narrow, “get-ahead” reality. When we focus too much on “doing,” without making time for “being,” that is to say, communing with the Divine, we automatically make decisions that transform the earth in negative ways.
This is the source of many of the environmental problems we face today. A society that is driven by consumption and industrial development can overlook deforesting the rainforests or irrevocably and negatively impacting the climate. It is precisely the accessing of our inner selves that enables us to encounter the larger picture of our own reality.
Much of today’s environmental crisis stems from laziness, detachment, and simply cutting corners, not malicious destruction. If all people, from the average consumer to the corporate CEO, dedicated time each day to rekindle their own inner-potential as vehicles for God in the world, their use of the natural world would be informed by their relationship with the Creator of the natural world.
It does not really matter if one is controlling a multi-national corporation or running a household, the reality is that mindfulness of the bigger picture is an essential tool for any individual who cares about the world in which we live.
We do not each need to become shepherds to learn the lesson of “shepherd consciousness.” A simple commitment to withdraw from the world for a brief period and engage the more spiritual realms will provide us with a broader perspective on our own lives and the decisions we make.
We need to focus on being human beings, not human doings. If we are to stand a chance of returning to ecological balance, we need to regain the inner spiritual balance and clarity of vision of our ancestors.
Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.
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
Improbable Endings and the Defeat of Despair (Vayeshev 5778)
We live life looking forward but we understand it only looking back.
As we live from day to day, our life can seem like a meaningless sequence of random events, a series of accidents and happenstances that have no shape or inner logic. A traffic jam makes us late for an important meeting. A stray remark we make offends someone in a way we never intended. By a hair’s-breadth we fail to get the job we so sought. Life as we experience it can sometimes feel like Joseph Heller’s definition of history: “a trashbag of random coincidences blown open in a wind.”
Yet looking back, it begins to make sense. The opportunity we missed here led to an even better one there. The shame we felt at our unintentionally offensive remark makes us more careful about what we say in the future. Our failures, seen in retrospect many years later, turn out to have been our deepest learning experiences. Our hindsight is always more perceptive than our foresight. We live life facing the future, but we understand life only when it has become our past.
Nowhere is this set out more clearly than in the story of Joseph in this week’s parsha. It begins on a high note: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made a richly embroidered robe.” But with dramatic speed, that love and that gift turn out to be Joseph’s undoing. His brothers began hating him. When he told them his dream, they hated him even more. His second dream offended even his father. Later, when he went to see his brothers tending their flocks, they first plotted to kill him, and eventually sold him as a slave.
At first, in Potiphar’s house, he seemed to be favoured by fortune. But then his master’s wife tried to seduce him and when he refused her advances she accused him of attempted rape and he was sent to prison with no way of proving his innocence. He seemed to have reached his nadir. There was nowhere lower for him to fall.
Then came an unexpected ray of hope. Interpreting the dream of a fellow prisoner, who had once been Pharaoh’s cup-bearer, he predicted his release and return to his former elevated role. And so it happened. Joseph asked only one thing in return: “Remember me when it goes well with you, and please show me kindness: mention me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this place. For I was forcibly taken from the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing to deserve being put in this pit.”
The last line of the parsha is one of the cruelest blows of fate in the Torah: “The chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” Seemingly his one chance of escape to freedom is now lost. Joseph, the beloved son in his magnificent robe has become Joseph, the prisoner bereft of hope. This is as near the Torah gets to Greek tragedy. It is a tale of Joseph’s hubris leading, step after step, to his nemesis. Every good thing that happens to him turns out to be only the prelude to some new and unforeseen misfortune.
Yet a mere two years later, at the beginning of next week’s parsha, we discover that all this has been leading to Joseph’s supreme elevation. Pharaoh makes him Viceroy over Egypt, the greatest empire of the ancient world. He gives him his own signet ring, has him dressed in royal robes and a gold chain, and has him paraded in a chariot to the acclaim of the crowds. A mere thirty years old, he has become the second most powerful man in the world. From the lowest pit he has risen to dizzying heights. He has gone from zero to hero overnight.
What is stunning about the way this story is told in the Torah is that it is constructed to lead us, as readers, in precisely the wrong direction. Parshat Vayeshev has the form of a Greek tragedy. Mikketz then comes and shows us that the Torah embodies another worldview altogether. Judaism is not Athens. The Torah is not Sophocles. The human condition is not inherently tragic. Heroes are not fated to fall.
The reason is fundamental. Ancient Israel and the Greece of antiquity – the two great influences on Western civilisation – had profoundly different understandings of time and circumstance. The Greeks believed in moira or ananke, blind fate. They thought that the gods were hostile or at best indifferent to humankind, so there was no way of avoiding tragedy if that is what fate had decreed. Jews believed, and still believe, that God is with us as we travel through time. Sometimes we feel as if we are lost, but then we discover, as Joseph did, that He has been guiding our steps all along.
Initially Joseph had flaws in his character. He was vain about his appearance; he brought his father evil reports about his brothers; his narcissism led directly to the advances of Potiphar’s wife. But the story of which he was a part was not a Greek tragedy. By its end – the death of Joseph in the final chapter of Genesis – he had become a different human being entirely, one who forgave his brothers the crime they committed against him, the man who saved an entire region from famine and starvation, the one Jewish tradition calls “the tzaddik.”
Don’t think you understand the story of your life at half-time. That is the lesson of Joseph. At the age of twenty-nine he would have been justified in thinking his life an abject failure: hated by his brothers, criticised by his father, sold as a slave, imprisoned on a false charge and with his one chance of freedom gone.
The second half of the story shows us that Joseph’s life was not like that at all. His became a tale of unprecedented success, not only politically and materially, but also morally and spiritually. He became the first person in recorded history to forgive. By saving the region from famine, he became the first in whom the promise made by God to Abraham came true: “Through you, all the families of the land will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). There was no way of predicting how the story would end on the basis of the events narrated in parshat Vayeshev. The turning-point in his life was a highly improbable event that could not have been predicted but which changed all else, not just for him but for large numbers of people and for the eventual course of Jewish history. God’s hand was at work, even when Joseph felt abandoned by every human being he had encountered.
We live life forward but we see the role of Providence in our lives only looking back. That is the meaning of God’s words to Moses: “You will see My back” (Ex. 33:23), meaning, “You will see Me only when you look back.”
Joseph’s story is a precise reversal of the narrative structure of Sophocles’ Oedipus. Everything Laius and his son Oedipus do to avert the tragic fate announced by the oracle in fact brings it closer to fulfilment, whereas in the story of Joseph, every episode that seems to be leading to tragedy turns out in retrospect to be a necessary step to saving lives and the fulfilment of Joseph’s dreams.
Judaism is the opposite of tragedy. It tells us that every bad fate can be averted (hence our prayer on the High Holy Days that “penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil decree”) – while every positive promise made by God will never be undone.
Hence the life-changing idea: Despair is never justified. Even if your life has been scarred by misfortune, lacerated by pain, and your chances of happiness seem gone forever, there is still hope. The next chapter of your life can be full of blessings. You can be, in Wordsworth’s lovely phrase, “surprised by joy.”
Every bad thing that has happened to you thus far may be the necessary prelude to the good things that are about to happen because you have been strengthened by suffering and given courage by your ability to survive. That is what we learn from the heroes of endurance from Joseph to the Holocaust survivors of today, who kept going, had faith, refused to despair, and were privileged to write a new and different chapter in the book of their lives.
Seen through the eye of faith, today’s curse may be the beginning of tomorrow’s blessing. That is a thought that can change a life.
 Bereishit Rabbah 84:7; see Rashi to Gen. 37:2.
 Gen. 37:2, and see Bereshit Rabbah 84:7.
 Tanhuma, Vayeshev, 8.
 Yoma 35b.
 Shabbat 55a
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 David Kasher
CHAPTER 38 – Parshat Vayeishev
Everyone is surprised when they get to Chapter 38.
With Chapter 37, we began the story of Joseph, which will be the longest continuous narrative in the Book of Genesis. We opened with Joseph’s bratty teenage years, which he spends infuriating his brothers with descriptions of his dreams – all of which seem to end with some image of them bowing down before him. In fact, the brothers come to hate Joseph so much, they decide to kill him. They throw him into a pit, intending to leave him there to starve to death. But suddenly, Judah, who seems to have taken the leadership role among the brothers, convinces them that they would be better off selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites as a slave – which is exactly what they do, for twenty pieces of silver. Then they take Joseph’s famous coat, dip it in goat’s blood, and convince their father Jacob that Joseph has been torn apart by a wild animal. Jacob falls into a deep mourning, the family tries in vain to console him, and Joseph – we are told in the last line of the chapter – is sold in Egypt to Potiphar, a eunuch of the Pharaoh.
What next? How will Joseph fare? Will he ever see his family again? The famous story of his improbable but meteoric rise to power in Egypt awaits…
But as Chapter 38 commences, we find ourselves on some kind of detour, following the story of a different character:
It was at that time that Judah went down from brothers and pitched a tent near a certain Adulamite whose name was Hirah.
וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא, וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו; וַיֵּט עַד-אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי, וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה.
We will have to wait to find out what happens to Joseph, it seems. For now, instead, we will hear the tale of Judah and Tamar. And it is a strange and tragic one, though with a sort of happy ending. Judah quickly marries, has three sons – Er, Onan and Shelah – and marries the first one off to Tamar. But Er displeases God and is killed; and Judah now marries Tamar to Onan. But Onan also displeases God (for a rather popular sin that will come to bear his name), is also killed, and now Tamar stands to be married to Shelah. But Judah has seen the pattern, and doesn’t want to lose his last son. So he tells Tamar to go back to live in her father’s house, and just wait until Shelah grows up. It is clear, however, that his true intent is to keep her there as a widow, forever.
Time passes, Judah’s unnamed wife dies and, after a period of mourning, he travels to Timnah with his friend Hirah, ostensibly to shear their sheep. When Tamar hears that Judah is coming that way, she covers herself in a veil and goes down to the road. As Judah passes, he sees her there, takes her for a prostitute, and turns aside to solicit her services. She asks for payment, and when he promises a goat from his flock, she demands he leave a pledge, which he does: his seal, his cord, and his staff.
And then Tamar disappears. Judah does try to pay the mysterious woman back, but cannot find her. Three months later, he is told that Tamar is pregnant. She is officially committed to Shelah, so this is an offense to the family, and Judah shows no mercy. “Bring her out,” he says, “and let her be burned.” But she then sends him the items of pledge – not outing him directly, but leaving the matter in his hands. And when he sees them, and realizes what has happened, he stops the execution with the words, tzadkah mimeni (צדקה ממני), “she is more righteous than me.”
And that, dear reader, is the story of Judah and Tamar. Chapter 38 ends and we are returned, in Chapter 39, to our regularly scheduled programming. The story of Joseph continues:
And Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar – a eunuch of Pharaoh, his chief steward, an Egyptian man – bought him from the Ishmaelites who brought him down there.
וְיוֹסֵף, הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה
We’re picking up right where we left off. The Torah has taken us back to Joseph, and it didn’t miss a beat. This first verse in Chapter 39 could have easily followed the last verse in Chapter 37.
So what was the purpose of the great interruption of Chapter 38? This is what all the commentators want to know.
The best answers come, as usual, from the great Rashi, who, borrowing from a midrash in Genesis Rabbah (85:2), gives us two intriguing explanations. The first:
And Joseph was taken down – We now return to the previous topic. But it was interrupted in order to compare Judah’s “going down” with the sale of Joseph, to tell you that it was because of this that [Judah] was taken down from greatness.
ויוסף הורד: חוזר לענין ראשון, אלא שהפסיק בו כדי לסמוך ירידתו של יהודה למכירתו של יוסף לומר לך שבשבילו הורידוהו מגדולתו
We have, at first glance, a straightforward moral message being offered here. Judah encouraged the sale of Joseph; and so, as a punishment (or a consequence), he falls away his from his exalted status in the family into a life of meanness and depravity, out on his own.
The midrash, however, is also highlighting an obvious linguistic connection between the two stories. Chapter 38 begins: “It was at that time that Judah went down.” And Chapter 39 begins: “And Joseph was taken down.” Both brothers are going down, and “at that time,” the same time. So yes, we are to understand that because Judah caused Joseph to go down to Egypt, Judah then went downward in his own way. But more than that, it seems that the trajectory of these two figures are linked. When one goes down, the other follows. And so, perhaps, their risings will have to be linked as well.
This link between Judah and Joseph is an important one. It begins here, but it will continue to be significant throughout the history of the tribes of Israel. For not only are these two sons of Jacob going to be the most significant players for the rest of the Book of Genesis, but in fact, their descendants will go on to form the most significant leadership factions in Ancient Israel – the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, sometimes referred to in the Books of the Prophets as “The House of Joseph,” and “The House of Judah.” (see: Zechariah 10:6) There are even, in the eschatological literature of Judaism, legends that the future Messiah will be not one figure, but two: one descended from Judah, and one from Joseph. (see: Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a-b).
Okay, this is all getting a little heady, but before we get carried away, let’s not forget that Rashi had another reason why Chapter 38 had been inserted here in the middle of the Joseph story:
And further, this all was meant to compare the story of Potiphar’s wife to the story of Tamar, in order to tell you that just as this one did it for the Sake of Heaven, so that one did it for the Sake of Heaven. For [Potiphar’s wife] saw through her astrology that she would one day raise children from him. But she did not know whether they were to come from her or from her daughter.
ועוד, כדי לסמוך מעשה אשתו של פוטיפר למעשה תמר, לומר לך מה זו לשם שמים אף זו לשם שמים, שראתה באצטרולוגין שלה שעתידה להעמיד בנים ממנו ואינה יודעת אם ממנה אם מבתה
Now this is a more surprising comparison. We’ve just told Tamar’s story, and though it included her committing what might have been considered a scandalous act, we left her in good standing: proven “more righteous” than Judah. The tradition remembers Tamar favorably.
Potiphar’s wife, on the other hand, is not such a celebrated character. In Chapter 39, she will try desperately to seduce Joseph, and then – when her advances are rebuffed – attempt to force herself on him. When he escapes that attack, she lies in order to present Joseph as the assailant, and lands him in prison. So Potiphar’s wife has traditionally been presented as a villain.
Yet here we find an attempt to vindicate both of these women by imputing to them not just noble intentions, but a kind of prophetic knowledge of the lineages they will produce. Tamar knows that she is meant to be a mother to the offspring of Judah. Her first two husbands were taken before that mission could be fulfilled; if she is now unjustly denied Shelah (whose name, incidentally, literally means “hers”), she will instead lure Judah himself into fathering her children. And remember, it is through this line that messianic hopes will one day be charted, so Tamar seems to have known what she was doing.
Just so, in Rashi’s equivalency, Potiphar’s wife has divine knowledge of a future coupling between her family and Joseph’s. She just gets the generation wrong. She thought perhaps she was to be the one to bear Joseph a child, but instead it will be her daughter. For indeed, when Joseph is finally released from prison and ascends to Pharaoh’s second-in-command, he is married off to none other than Potiphar’s daughter, Osnat. (Gen. 41:45) And if the legends are true that there will also be a Messiah from the line of Joseph, it will descend from this union.
So we have, in Rashi’s explanation, two reasons for the interpolation of the Judah story in the middle of the Joseph story: 1.) To join the fate of these two warring brothers – first in descent, and then in ascent as future leaders of Israel. 2.) To highlight, through comparison, the phenomenon of seemingly devious sexual schemes that ultimately result in covenantal offspring.
But why does Rashi feel the need to give both of these reasons? Is there any connection between them?
Indeed there is. A moment’s reflection on the previous stories in Genesis will remind us that both of these themes were once dominant tropes in the life of Jacob, the father of Judah and Joseph. First of all, Jacob was, almost from the moment of his birth, locked in a power struggle with his twin brother Esau. It is the ultimate sibling rivalry in the Torah: one that begins as Jacob grabs Esau’s heel on the way out, continues through Jacob’s crafty purchase of Esau’s birthright and outright theft of Esau’s family blessing, and is never fully resolved.
And then, Jacob also finds his most intimate relationships negotiated through acts of deception and manipulation. He falls in love with Rachel, asks her father Lavan for her hand in marriage, and intends to consummate the marriage with her after seven years of work… only to wake up next to Leah! Lavan tricked Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter first, but now consents to allow him to marry Rachel as well. Jacob is incensed, but the first marriage stands, and through it come seven of his children – including Judah. With Rachel, meanwhile, he will have two other beloved children – including his favorite, Joseph. It is a strange, almost perverse arrangement, being married to two sisters, and it only gets stranger when he takes their maidservants as third and fourth wives. Along the way, there is plenty of bitterness, infighting, and even some exchange of currency for the right to sleep with Jacob (placing him the role of the prostitute). But in the end, all seems justified, for – unlike in previous generations – all of Jacob’s children are to be included in the covenantal destiny, and together they will make up the twelve tribes of Israel.
So Joseph and Judah’s stories, taken together, serve to work out some of the lingering tensions in their father’s legacy. These two favored sons will again deal with sibling rivalry, as they contend with one another for the ultimate place of privilege in the family and, one day, the nation. And they will each reckon with illicit sexual advances, unsavory or unwanted, that nevertheless lead, through twists and turns, to desired (or even divinely ordained) offspring.
The question remains, other than continuing established family patterns, what do the Joseph/Judah stories do with these motifs? Are the heroes of this generation simply destined to replay the same traumas that their ancestors set in motion, or are they meant, somehow, to resolve them?
There may be the beginning of an answer to these questions in material that Rashi kept hidden from us. For though he took his two explanations for appearance of Chapter 38 from a midrash in Genesis Rabbah, he left one out. When we turn back to the original source, we find still a third reason for connecting the Joseph and Judah stories:
Why are these two chapters placed together? Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan said: In order to compare one “going down” to another “going down.” Rabbi Yochanan said: In order to compare one “recognition” to another “recognition.” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: In order to compare the story of Tamar to the story of Potiphar’s wife.
ומפני מה הסמיך פרשה זו לזו? רבי אלעזר ור’ יוחנן רבי אלעזר אמר: כדי לסמוך ירידה לירידה. רבי יוחנן אמר: כדי לסמוך הכר להכר. ר’ שמואל בר נחמן אמר: כדי לסמוך מעשה תמר, למעשה אשתו של פוטיפר
We have already discussed the first and last answers. But what are these two “recognitions” that Rabbi Yochanan speaks of? There is, first, a technical answer. Joseph’s brothers, in Chapter 37, bring the bloody coat to their father and ask him:
Please recognize this coat. Is it your son’s, or not?
הַכֶּר-נָא, הַכְּתֹנֶת בִּנְךָ הִוא–אִם-לֹא
And Jacob does recognize it, and so assumes that Joseph had been killed.
In Chapter 38, Tamar sends the pledged items to Judah and asks:
Please recognize whose seal and cord and staff are these?
הַכֶּר-נָא–לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה, הָאֵלֶּה
And Judah does recognize them, in a moment we have already recorded:
Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than me…”
וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי
This the same language, haker na, “Please recognize,” and these are the only two times that this phrase is used in the Torah. So there it is – another connection between the two stories.
But the significance of these ‘recognitions’ is not just technical or linguistic – it is much greater than that. For recognition is exactly what has been missing from all of these stories, from Jacob on down.
– In Jacob’s struggles with Esau, it was unclear who deserved the birthright, and each parent identified a different son as the heir.
– On Jacob’s wedding night, he did not recognize the woman in his bed, and ended up marrying the “wrong” sister.
– Now it is again unclear who is the heir apparent to Jacob: Judah or Joseph?
– Judah does not recognize Tamar on the road, nor does he recognize that she is supposed to bear children to his family.
– Potiphar’s wife does recognize Joseph as the father to her descendants, but does not recognize, in her divinations, who is supposed to be the mother.
So much confusion in this family; and from confusion, so much pain.
But now we have two recognitions. That’s a start. Though the language is the same, however, they are actually very different moments. Jacob does recognize his son’s coat, but he still misreads the situation. He is fooled again, this time into thinking his living son is dead. Like so many of the moments in Jacob’s life, this one lacks real clarity.
Judah, however, truly sees things as they are. He not only recognizes the items placed before him, he also recognizes that he is in the wrong, and that Tamar must be set free. His recognition is a profound one, for it causes him to see himself differently, and to redirect his actions based on new information. He gains control of his fate, in this moment, by discovering humility. This same humility will allow him to take responsibility for his role in the sale of Joseph, and to finally reconcile with the brother who was to be his adversary. Judah’s moment of recognition, then, is the beginning of a process that will rescue his whole family from a tragic fate, unify the embittered siblings and welcome all of their descendants into the covenant.
Fitting, then, that Chapter 38 ends with a scene that seems to bookend the contentious moment of Jacob’s birth. For Tamar and Judah also have twins – the only other pair in Tanach. And these, too, seem initially to be struggling for first position:
While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: ‘This one came out first!’ But just then, he drew back his hand, and out came his brother, and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Peretz. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread, and he was named Zerach. (vv. 28-30)
כח וַיְהִי בְלִדְתָּהּ, וַיִּתֶּן-יָד; וַתִּקַּח הַמְיַלֶּדֶת, וַתִּקְשֹׁר עַל-יָדוֹ שָׁנִי לֵאמֹר, זֶה, יָצָא רִאשֹׁנָה. כט וַיְהִי כְּמֵשִׁיב יָדוֹ, וְהִנֵּה יָצָא אָחִיו, וַתֹּאמֶר, מַה-פָּרַצְתָּ עָלֶיךָ פָּרֶץ; וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, פָּרֶץ. ל וְאַחַר יָצָא אָחִיו, אֲשֶׁר עַל-יָדוֹ הַשָּׁנִי; וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, זָרַח.
This time, it is clear who is who. For, despite a moment of struggle and confusion, we recognize the red string on the one who first put out his hand. There is no need for heel-grabbing. And there is no need for a birthright, a good twin or an evil twin. Both of these children will be blessed.
Where, then, is the bookend for the other great moment of confusion in Jacob’s life, the night he woke up with an unexpected bride?
For that, we will have to wait many centuries, until the Book of Ruth. This is the tale of Ruth the Moabite, who attempts to enter the Jewish people, but must secure a place in some established family to do so. She and her guardian, Naomi, hatch a plan to seduce Boaz (a man of the tribe of Judah!) into sleeping with her by sneaking into his makeshift bed in the fields. More deception, more manipulation! How will Boaz react?
In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back – and behold, there was a woman lying at his feet! (Ruth 3:8)
וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, וַיֶּחֱרַד הָאִישׁ וַיִּלָּפֵת; וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה, שֹׁכֶבֶת מַרְגְּלֹתָיו.
This “behold” is the same language we found on Jacob’s wedding night:
When morning came, behold, Leah! (Gen. 29:25)
וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר, וְהִנֵּה-הִוא לֵאָה
Jacob was then confused and angry, and demanded, “Why did you deceive me?!”
But Boaz’s reaction to being startled in the night is very different, when he asks:
“Who are you?” and she replied, “I am your handmaid, Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeemer.”
He exclaimed, “You are blessed before the Lord, daughter! Your latest deed of kindness is greater than the first, for you have not turned to younger men, neither poor nor rich. And now, daughter, have no fear. I will do on your behalf whatever you ask, for all of my people know what a woman of valor you are!” (Ruth 3:9-11)
ט וַיֹּאמֶר, מִי-אָתְּ; וַתֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי רוּת אֲמָתֶךָ, וּפָרַשְׂתָּ כְנָפֶךָ עַל-אֲמָתְךָ, כִּי גֹאֵל אָתָּה. י וַיֹּאמֶר, בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ לַיהוָה בִּתִּי–הֵיטַבְתְּ חַסְדֵּךְ הָאַחֲרוֹן, מִן-הָרִאשׁוֹן: לְבִלְתִּי-לֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי הַבַּחוּרִים–אִם-דַּל, וְאִם-עָשִׁיר. יא וְעַתָּה, בִּתִּי אַל-תִּירְאִי, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאמְרִי, אֶעֱשֶׂה-לָּךְ: כִּי יוֹדֵעַ כָּל-שַׁעַר עַמִּי, כִּי אֵשֶׁת חַיִל אָתְּ.
Boaz does not reject the woman whom fate has brought to him, but instead seems to praise his good fortune. Ruth is in – despite her deception, despite even her questionable Moabite lineage – for Boaz, a true descendant of Judah, recognizes her righteousness.
And with that, all of the great personal struggles that were inherited from Jacob have finally been resolved. It took a long time, and a lot of pain, but there is a happy ending. Boaz and Ruth have a child, Oved, and the Book of Ruth ends with a lineage that traces itself back to none other than Peretz, the child of Judah and Tamar:
This is the line of Peretz. Peretz begot Hetzron; Hetzron begot Ram; Ram begot Aminadav; Aminadav begot Nachshon; Nachshon begot Salmah; Salmah begot Boaz; Boaz begot Oved; Oved begot Jesse; and Jesse begot David. (Ruth 4:18-22)
יח וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדוֹת פָּרֶץ, פֶּרֶץ הוֹלִיד אֶת-חֶצְרוֹן. יט וְחֶצְרוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת-רָם, וְרָם הוֹלִיד אֶת-עַמִּינָדָב. כ וְעַמִּינָדָב הוֹלִיד אֶת-נַחְשׁוֹן, וְנַחְשׁוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת-שַׂלְמָה. כא וְשַׂלְמוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת-בֹּעַז, וּבֹעַז הוֹלִיד אֶת-עוֹבֵד. כב וְעֹבֵד הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִשָׁי, וְיִשַׁי הוֹלִיד אֶת-דָּוִד.
That last figure, take note, is David, King of Israel, the anointed one, uniter of the northern and southern kingdoms – the House of Joseph and the House of Judah – and the heir to the messianic lineage of Judah. Ruth the Moabite, whose place among the people of Israel was at first not even recognized, found her own unconventional way in (like Tamar before her), and went on to become the Mother to the Messiah. Or one of them, at least…
And it all begins with Chapter 38. Everyone was surprised to find it here, but, dear reader, this might just be the most important chapter of them all.
“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 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.
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 the Maqam Project
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 Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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
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 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
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayeshev [2a]
*Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure, a maqam, cognate of maqom signifying Place.
C D E flat F
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 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.
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.
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayeshev
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.
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
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.
~ 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 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.
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