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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayeshev
December 8, 2012 – 24 Kislev 5773

Annual (Gen. 37:1-40:23): (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial (Gen. 39:1-40:23): (Etz Hayim, p. 238; Hertz p. 147)
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Jacob shows marked favoritism toward his beloved son Joseph, provoking the bitter resentment of the rest of his sons. Joseph compounds their hatred for him with his habit of reporting unfavorably on their behavior to their father. Jacob presents Joseph with a "coat of many colors." Joseph describes his dreams to his brothers: their sheaves of grain bowing to his; the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing to him. The brothers' disdain for their privileged and ambitious brother is inflamed further. Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, who are pasturing flocks at Shechem. As Joseph approaches they conspire to kill him, but at Reuben's behest they modify their plan, agreeing to throw him into a pit instead. Reuben intends to return to the pit to rescue him.

Before he can help Joseph escape, however, the brothers modify the conspiracy further. They sell him to a caravan of traders, variously identified as Ishmaelites and Midianites, and the traders sell him into Egyptian slavery. To conceal their crime, the brothers dip the tunic, the symbol of Joseph's favored status, in animal blood, and show it to Jacob as evidence of his beloved son's death. Jacob mourns Joseph's violent end: "A savage beast has devoured him!" In Egypt, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh's chief steward.

The Joseph narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah's son, Er, dies after displeasing God through an unspecified offense. Judah instructs a second son, Onan, to enter into a levirate marriage with his widowed sister-in-law, Tamar. Under this arrangement, Onan's children by Tamar would be counted as Er's offspring. Onan impedes conception of an heir to his brother, giving rise to the term "onanism." Onan also dies for his sin. Judah procrastinates in arranging a union between Tamar and his youngest son, Shelah, fearing for Shelah's life. Some time later, Judah is widowed. He travels to Timnah, where Tamar contrives to meet him. Disguised as a prostitute, and veiled to conceal her identity, Tamar arranges a liaison with her father-in-law, and Judah leaves a staff and signet with her as promise of payment. Tamar, still incognito, disappears with Judah's collateral before being paid, and she conceives Judah's twins. When her pregnancy becomes apparent, Judah assumes she has had an illicit affair and orders her killed. When she produces his staff and signet, he understands that he has been duped into a levirate marriage of sorts: "She is more righteous than I!" Perez and Zerah are born of their union.

The narrative returns to Egypt, where Joseph rises to high position as major domo in Potiphar's household. Joseph repeatedly repels sexual advances by Potiphar's wife, who claims Joseph has assaulted her, showing a garment she seized from him as evidence. (This claim is a striking parallel to the false evidence used by Joseph's brothers to document his alleged death.) Joseph is imprisoned by a furious Potiphar. In prison, Joseph interprets dreams for the imprisoned royal cupbearer and baker. He accurately foretells their restoration to office and execution, respectively - fates meted out at a celebration of Pharaoh's birthday, but despite Joseph's pleas for his intervention and advocacy, the cupbearer, restored to his position, forgets Joseph's cause.

Theme #1: "You must remember this..."

"So his brothers resented him, and his father kept the matter in mind." (Genesis 37:11)

Study: Derash

"What caused Jacob to ‘keep the matter in mind'? He knew that every dream contains some absurdity; in this dream, that segment was Joseph's mother bowing down, since she had been dead for many years. This one point, however, proved to Jacob that the rest of the dream was true, and that some day they would all bow down to Joseph." (Chatam Sofer)

"Jacob took the brothers' jealousy in stride, since one can feel jealousy toward everyone – except one's son." (Netziv, Ha'amek Davar)

"'Envied.' The repetition of the dream was a sign to them that it was more than a dream. They envied him his assured greatness. And now that envy was added to hatred, they were in a mental state to do him violence. One of the hardest things to learn is to recognize without envy the superiority of a younger brother. ‘Kept the saying in mind.' He noted with satisfaction that his designation of Joseph as the future ruler of the family seemed to have Divine approval." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"Here it appears that Jacob appreciates that Joseph's dream is an important prediction about the future, yet denounces it in order to keep peace.... Does Jacob believe that Joseph's dreams will come true? Does he rebuke his special son for the sake of the brothers, to alleviate their envy? What is Jacob keeping in mind: the dream, or the jealousy of his children? Despite the ambiguity of the text, it is obvious that both Jacob's relationship with his sons and Joseph's relationship with his brothers are highly strained." (Ora Horn Prouser, Esau's Blessing)

"A person is born with feelings of envy and hate. If he gives way to them, they will lead him to violence and crime, and any sense of loyalty and good faith will be abandoned." (Xun Zi, Confucian philosopher c. 300-200 BCE)

Questions for Discussion

Rabbi Hertz calls our attention to the fact that the brothers' reaction to Joseph's first dream was hatred, while the second dream evoked jealousy. Is this because they were convinced by the second dream that Joseph would, indeed, rise above them? What else might account for the brothers' envy?

Consider Professor Horn Prouser's description of our verse as "ambiguous." How is our reading of later events changed by the alternative readings – that is, whether it was the brothers' enmity or Joseph's portentous dreams that Jacob "kept in mind"?

Xun Zi discusses the dangers of both emotions evinced by the brothers: hate and envy... as well as the results of those feelings: violent crime and disloyalty. Was Joseph's suffering inevitable? Is this entire narrative a study not so much in Providence as in family discord?

Are the readings of the Netziv and the Chatam Sofer mutually exclusive? Did Jacob underestimate the explosive potential of his sons' conflict even while perceiving the prophetic quality of the dreams?

If, indeed, "one of the hardest things to learn is to recognize without envy the superiority of a younger brother," what does this say about the Bible's frequent recourse to the motif of an ascendant younger brother? (Think Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim, Moses, David...) What message is the Bible asking its readers to "keep in mind"?

Theme #2: "How low can you go..."

"...Joseph was taken down to Egypt..." (Genesis 39:1)

Study: Derash

"Of both Abraham (Gen. 12:10) and Judah (Gen. 38:1), it is said that the ‘went down.' This implies that they lowered the moral level of their behavior. Joseph, however, did not lower himself; he was transported against his will. The episode in this chapter shows him maintaining a high moral standard." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"How quickly and how far does the family of Yaakov descend in this parsha! Hatred festers unchecked among the brothers, and turns to violence against Yosef who is thrown down into a pit and sold ‘down' to Egypt as a slave. The Torah draws a parallel between this descent of Yosef's (hurad) and that of Yehudah, who ‘goes down' (vayered) from his brothers in search of a wife and lands in his own trouble. Indeed, Yosef's descent leads the whole family to descend; in the short term, it leaves his father in a permanent state of mourning and his brothers with an uneasy sense of guilt, and in the long term, it literally brings the rest of the family to descend to Egypt as well, and eventually, to be enslaved there for hundreds of years." (Rachel Anisfeld)

"For me the most potent message of the Joseph story is the motif of yeridah and aliyah, descent and ascent. Time and again, Joseph goes down — only to be lifted even higher up. This week's story ends with Joseph in darkness once more... but I believe that the story calls us, as it calls Joseph, to trust that better things are coming. That if we are mindful of God's presence, of God-with-us even in our darkest hour, the darkness will always give way to light." (Rabbi Rachel Barenblat)

"Even in decline, a virtuous man increases the beauty of his behavior. A burning stick, though turned to the ground, has its flame drawn upwards." (Saskya Pandita, 13th century Tibetan spiritual leader)

"My life has been one long descent into respectability." (Mandy Rice-Davies)

Questions for Discussion

Compare Joseph's series of descents to those of Jonah, who went "down" to Jaffa, down into the hold of the ship, down into the sea... What do these Biblical personages have in common?

Why the theme of descent and decline in the Joseph narrative? Is it irony (a la Rice- Davies – the somewhat scandalized young British socialite who, as it happens, converted to Judaism and moved to Israel!)? Is it a polemic about the moral turpitude of Egypt? Is it a sustained effort to maximize the triumph that Joseph (and by extension the People Israel) is fated to enjoy?

Granted that Joseph did not lower himself morally in his interactions with Potiphar's wife... Was his moral comportment otherwise of the highest caliber? In his relationship to his brothers? His father – with whom he never made an effort to communicate, even after rising to power in Egypt? In his later economic administration of the ancient superpower? Consider Rabbi Barenblat's hopeful message. When have you experienced God's presence, and faith in a brighter future, during particularly dark times? How might we cultivate such faith? How is this question – and therefore our text – related to the observance and meaning of Chanukah?

Historic Note

In Parashat Vayeshev, read on December 8, 2012, Joseph rebuffs the persistent sexual overtures of his master Potiphar's wife. On December 8, 1949, Jule Styne's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" opened at New York City's Ziegfeld Theater.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev 5773 is Erev Chanukah: the first Chanukah candle is lit at the conclusion of Shabbat. The procedure for lighting Chanukah candles is a matter of debate (See Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 230). In the synagogue, Chanukah candles are lit following Maariv (the evening service), but before Havdallah. The person lighting the candles relies on the blessing Atah Chonantanu in the Amidah as the formal conclusion of Shabbat. At home, however, Havdallah should precede the lighting of Chanukah candles. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 681:2, Magen David ad loc., Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139:18). One should light candles at home even if present for lighting in the synagogue. See Orach Chaim 671:7. The blessing Shehechiyanu is added to the two Chanukah berachot on the first night of the holiday (or, if one missed candle-lighting on the first night, at the first candle-lighting observed).

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