Parashat Vayeshev – Erev Shabbat 26 November 2021- 5782
Week of 21 – 27 November 2021
Torah portion: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23 Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8
Theme: Two Very Different Strands of Jacob’s Line
There is a poignant undertow to the word va-yashev (he settled): Jacob would like to find some measure of tranquillity after all his troubles, but God rebuffs this yearning (Zornberg, 243). Jacob is at Hebron (Gen. 35:27), and our attention shifts to Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob and the first child of his beloved wife, Rachel. Joseph’s story occupies not only most of this parashah (chapters 37, 39, 40) but the rest of Genesis as well. The dirge-like tone of the Haftarah from the prophet, Amos, sensitively accompanies this parashah.
Joseph is a dreamer and also a dutiful son (37:13). His dreams, promising position, power, and prestige, are silenced by his father and his brothers. When Jacob sends 17-year-old Joseph to his brothers, who are pasturing their flocks at Dothan, they plot to kill him, but instead, deterred by Reuben, they strip him of his “ornamented tunic” that was the gift of his father (37:3) and throw him into a pit. They sell him to Ishmaelite traders going to Egypt, who then sell him to Potiphar, chief steward of Pharaoh. To account to their father for Joseph’s absence, the brothers kill a kid, soak Joseph’s tunic in its blood, and take it to their father, who is broken with grief. As overseer of the whole household of Potiphar, the Egyptian, Joseph’s major challenge was to repel the seduction of Potiphar’s wife. Aware of his vulnerability, yet faithful to his own principles, Joseph suffers imprisonment for two years (41.1). However, reassurance resounds throughout the text: “the Lord was with Joseph and he was successful” (39: 2, 3, 21, 23).
In prison, Joseph is joined by Pharaoh’s cupbearer and the chief baker. Appealing for their assistance; he interprets their dreams, anticipating benefit for the cupbearer but the demise of the baker at the Pharaoh’s birthday banquet. The parashah ends on an ominous note: upon his release, the cupbearer “did not think of Joseph; he forgot him” (40:23). Joseph’s dreams are far from fulfilled at this point.
Another strand of Jacob’s line emerges in chapter 38, with Perez, the grandson of Jacob, the son of Judah and Tamar, and a vital link in the Davidic line. After the death of Judah’s wife (Shuah’s daughter), Tamar (widow of Judah’s sons, Er and Onan) disguises herself as a prostitute on the road to Timnah; Judah does not recognize her and succumbs to her seduction. She takes, as a pledge of payment, his seal, cord, and staff. Learning that Tamar is pregnant through prostitution, Judah demands that she be burned. She defies him: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong”: Judah’s seal, his cord, and his staff. He admits, “She is more in the right than I.” Naming the twins in her womb, Perez, and Zerah, the chapter closes.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. “The Lord was with Joseph” recurs as a refrain through a very difficult period in his life; it leads to a deeper sense of purpose. Recall a similar experience in your life, and what you learned through it. 2. What part do dreams play in your life? Can you give an example?
Bibliography: Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York: 1997); Zornberg, Aviva Gottlieb, The Beginning of Desire (Schocken Books, New York, 1995).
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey, NDS Saskatoon, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna: 2005/6