Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
o Is favored by his father who gives him a special long-sleeved coat (of many colors)
o Angers his brothers with his dreams, interpretations and manner of speaking
o Is told by his father to visit and report on his brothers who are shepherding in Shechem
o Is lost in the field but is given directions by a man (divine messenger)
o Is sold into slavery by Ishmaelite merchants traveling in a caravan headed to Egypt and then resold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Chief of Staff
o Has his special coat dipped in the blood of a slaughtered goat by his siblings who present it to their father with the words “Haker Na” (“can you identify this”?)
o Is thought to be dead by his father Yaakov, who is inconsolable
Tamar the Canaanite displays courage in founding a family with Yehuda, her father-in-law, that leads to the birth of Peretz, the ancestor of King David
Yosef is successful in Potiphar’s house
Mrs. Potiphar’s unsuccessful seduction of Yosef
Yosef interprets dreams in prison
• From Yaakov--Never favor one child over another
• From Tamar--Persistence is critical in achieving goals
• From Yosef--When facing temptation, pause and remember the lessons of your upbringing
Vayeishev means “settled”
The Midrash explains that righteous people like Yaakov seek to live in peace and tranquility. In Yaakov’s case this desire was disturbed by Yosef and his siblings’ anger towards one another. The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes the irony in that this parsha named “settled” contains the most unsettling of all experiences in life—the disappearance and presumed death of a child. He concludes that it is the very challenging ordeals experienced by Yaakov [and us?] that build character, “uplifting him spiritually to the level at which he would be deserving of the greater peace.”
Dream, Dream, Dream
Benno Jacob comments on the qualitative changes in the content and format of dreams in the Torah. God speaks to the Patriarchs addressing each of them in their respective dreams. But with the decrease in nearness to Him, dreams change. In the Yosef saga there are six dreams in three parallel pairs— his two that he reports to his brothers and father; two of the imprisoned butler and baker; and the two of Pharaoh. Each is filled with images and incidents crying out for interpretation. Each foretells future events. Perhaps this is the new divine language communicating that God’s role in human affairs remains unchanged.
Who Sold Yosef Into Slavery?
Yosef is sent by his father to visit his brothers and learns from a stranger in the fields that they are in Dothan, a city some 15 miles north of Shechem. Although he was fully aware of the animosity between the brothers and Yosef, Yaakov’s decision may have been prompted by a desire create an opportunity for his sons to make peace. [Note: The text identifies him by his less-frequently used name Yisrael, perhaps alluding to his role as the founder of the nation of Israel and his hope for family reconciliation.]
When his brothers see him approaching they plot to kill him but Reuven, wanting to rescue Yosef and return him to their father, urges his siblings NOT to kill Yosef in cold blood but to let him die in a less violent manner by throwing him into a specific pit/ empty well that is in the desert. [His unspoken plan is to return later and free Yosef.] The brothers agree. They then share a meal and, while eating, see off in the distance a caravan of Ishmaelite traders coming from Gilead and heading to Egypt. When Yehuda suggests that they not kill Yosef but instead sell him to these traders, the brothers readily agree.
Local Midianite traders approach; Yosef is lifted out of the well and sold for twenty pieces of silver; the Ishmaelites bring him to Egypt. Reuven returns to the well—he had left to visit his father because it was his turn to wait on him--and is distraught when he discovers that Yosef is no longer there.
The brothers take Yosef’s special coat, dip it into the blood of a goat they slaughter, then send it to their father and ask him to identify it. Yaakov immediately recognizes the garment as his son’s and concludes that Yosef has been torn to pieces and eaten by a wild beast. Yaakov rips his clothing in grief, and mourns his son for many days, refusing the consolation of his children.
Rashi’s view is that the brothers were eating their meal somewhere near the well and it was they who pulled him out of the well and, through a series of transactions, sold him to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to the Medanites who brought him to Egypt where they sold him to Potiphar.
Rav Sadya Gaon and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan agree that it was the brothers who sold Yosef but assert that he was only sold once because the Ishmaelites and the Midianites and the Medanim are one and the same.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag follows in the footsteps of earlier commentators including Rashbam and Shadal in concluding that it was the Midianites--and not the brothers--who lifted Yosef out of the well and that it was the Midianites who sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites. In his view, the brothers were having their meal at a location that was far from the well. While eating, they saw off in the distance a caravan of Ishmaelite international traders (“orchat Yishmaelim”—a transport caravan) traveling along the ancient trade route known as Via Maris that crosses through Emek Yizrael and continues towards the Mediterranean coast. But a group of local Midianite traders (called “socharim”) who were closer to the well got there first. The brothers were grazing their sheep in the area of Dothan, which is on the northern slopes of the central mountain range of Israel (today between Jenin, Shechem and Afula).The desert with the abandoned pits/abandoned wells is along the eastern slopes of the entire central mountain range, about six miles east of Dothan. After throwing Yosef into the pit in the desert the brothers--including Reuven--in all likelihood returned to the campsite in Dothan to eat rather than dining within earshot of their baby brother’s screaming. Because the text tells us that Reuven later returned to the well it’s clear that he had left, presumably to be with his brothers with whom he would share a meal.
During the meal, Yehuda proposed that instead of killing Yosef, he be sold to the international Ishmaelite traders clearly visible from the mountains of Dothan who are traveling in the distant valley. The brothers have ample time to finish their meal, fetch Yosef from the well in the desert and meet up with the convoy. But the Midianite locals in the desert, hear Yosef’s cries, pull him out of the well and continue on their way to the Ishmaelite caravan to sell their wares, now including Yosef. The brothers are too far away to have heard or seen what was happening at the well. Reuven, rushes ahead to retrieve Yosef, only to discover that is missing. He returns to Dothan to inform his brothers and they too are baffled by Yosef’s disappearance. They make up a story to tell their father that Yosef was killed by a wild animal on his way to visit them, as suggested by the blood-stained garment they show their father.
Yehuda and Tamar
The unfolding story of Yosef and his arrival in Egypt is interrupted with the story about Yehuda, who “went down from his brothers” to enter a partnership with an Adulamite man named Chirah. The Midrash interprets this on a deeper level to mean that the respect from his brothers “went down” because they blamed him for the entire Yosef incident. He was their leader and had he advised them to return Yosef to their father (instead of suggesting selling him into slavery) they would have listened to him. Yehuda, angry with himself (depressed? despondent?) about his behavior, flees.
Yehuda marries the daughter of a businessman named Shua, and sires three sons—Ayr, Onan and Shelah. Yehuda takes a wife named Tamar for his son Ayr. When Ayr dies Yehuda tells Onan to marry his brother’s widow so that there will be offspring to perpetuate Ayr’s name (Yibum).Onan is resentful, performs coitus interruptus and also dies. Yehuda advises Tamar to return to her father’s home and wait until Shelah is old enough to marry. [He feared that were Shelah to marry Tamar he, too, would die like his two older siblings.]
Yehuda’s wife dies. After the mourning period ends he goes to a sheep-shearing festival in the town of Timnah. Upon learning this, Tamar dresses like a cult prostitute and waits at the crossroads on the road to Timnah. Yehuda is attracted to her (unaware that she is his daughter-in-law) and agrees to send her a kid from the flock in payment for her services. Tamar demands and receives Yehuda’s signet, cloak and staff as collateral until the kid is delivered. (Biblical scholar Robert Alter notes that this was not an inconsequential request; it is the equivalent of a demand for one’s credit cards in contemporary times.) Yehuda impregnates Tamar, after which she returns home and dons her garments of widowhood. Yehuda’s friend is sent to deliver the kid and recover the collateral but is told by the locals that there was no cult prostitute in the area. When the friend reports his findings, Yehuda calmly expresses the hope that he will not be made a laughing stock should the prostitute show his personal things to others.
Some three months later, when Tamar’s pregnancy becomes evident, Yehuda angrily rules that she should be burned to death (or be branded) for committing adultery. Tamar quietly asks to meet privately with Yehuda, where she shows him the signet, cloak and staff in her possession and asks if he knows to whom they belong. Yehuda realizes what happened; says that Tamar is more righteous (or more in the right) than him; and no longer sleeps with her. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s view is that Yehuda is undergoing a transformation from being cold and calculating to becoming “ethically passionate, loving, and responsible”.
Tamar is carrying twins. During labor, when one of the twins puts out a hand, the midwife ties a scarlet ribbon on it. As the hand is pulled back in, the second twin comes out and the midwife names him Peretz (breach) because “what a breach you have made for yourself”. The baby with the scarlet thread comes out and is named Zerach because of the shining appearance of the scarlet thread.
Tamar displays a sterling character: When told that she would be put to death for committing adultery she could have announced that she was impregnated by Yehuda. Instead of publicly embarrassing him this way, she chooses to quietly and privately confront him. (From this incident the Sages concluded that it is better for one to die by fire than to publicly shame another human being.)
Benno Jacob’s view is that the purpose of this story is to show how this non-Jewish, extraordinary individual realized that Yehuda would play a key role in creating a nation and wanted to be part of this destiny. When there is no longer a son for her to marry with whom to procreate, she turns to Yehuda in a variation of Yibum. After all, she reasons, the wife of Yehuda’s deceased son is no more closely related than the wife of a deceased brother.
Tamar gives birth to Peretz the ancestor of David, the Judean royal dynasty and the Messiah. Ruth and Tamar have much in common. Both were ethical non-Jewish women who considered themselves part of their Jewish in-laws’ family. Both were stubborn independent women who had an unshakable desire to identify with Israel. Both were widows who married a man from an older generation as part of the Yibum process. When Boaz and Ruth marry the well-wishers blessing is “let thy house be like the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Yehuda…” The two are linked again in the closing verses in the Book of Ruth when the genealogy of King David is presented starting with Tamar’s son Peretz, rather than with Yaakov or Avraham.
Rav B.S. Jacobson observes that Tamar is the most appealing character in this episode. Unlike Yehuda’s wife, whose name is not mentioned, Tamar’s name is repeated over and over. Mrs. Yehuda is a passive, anonymous personality who bears three sons only to tragically witness the deaths of the two older ones, until she herself passes away. Tamar, on the other hand, personifies independence and daring. She is a person who takes the initiative, using everything within her power to achieve her goal of serving as a critical link in the building of the nation of Israel. No wonder the name Tamar is so popular!
The Tamar-Yehuda Incident Interrupts the Momentum and Drama of the Unfolding Story of Yosef’s Life.
• Professor Umberto Cassuto notes the inner link and the parallel events and similar expressions in both stories. Yehuda had sent Yosef’s blood- stained garment to his father saying “haker na” [“do you recognize who this belongs to?”]. Yehuda is believed to be the one who proposed this plan that caused his father profound pain and inconsolable sorrow as Yaakov concludes that his son Yosef is dead. In juxtaposition, Tamar sends the signet, cloak and staff and asks him to “acknowledge I pray thee whose these are”. Yehuda is shamed and disgraced “measure for measure” and then admits his guilt.
• The Midrash sees in these stories divine preparation of healing before the disease strikes. Yosef and his sale to Potiphar begin the saga of the Israelites and the national tragedy they will experience in Egypt. But before this happens, God sets into motion events that will ultimately give birth to the Messiah.
• I think that the Torah may be drawing our attention to the similarity of and relationship between these two key players in this saga. Both are powerful leaders, but both need to mature into their respective roles. Yosef the spoiled child gradually morphs into Yosef hatzadik (“the righteous one”). Yehuda needs to experience the tragedies and promise of his life with his new family and with Tamar in order to be able to grow into his role as the family’s and nation’s leader and spokesman.
The Maturation of Yosef
When we first meet him, Yosef is a 17-year old na’ar--doing boyish things like curling his hair and touching up his eyes to look attractive-- who tattles to his father about his siblings’ behavior .These reports included their eating meat from a live animal; their characterizing Yaakov’s concubines as being “slaves”; and suspicion of immoral sexuality.
He speaks to his siblings in a way that enrages them. He has a dream in which his brothers’ sheaves bow down to his sheave and he feels the need to emphasize its meaning. The brothers hate him for the dream (“shall you indeed reign over us?”) and for his words. He has a second dream in which “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars bow down to me”. The brothers remain silent but when he repeats the dream to his father, Yaakov responds “shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come and bow down to you on the earth?” The Text describes how the animosity intensified. They first “hate him”, then they “hate him more”, then they “hate him yet more… because of his dreams and his manner of speaking”. The brothers’ silent seething and hatred turns to jealousy—“a loss of one’s composure in the face of another person’s unmerited good luck and airing this feeling in words”(Benno Jacob) .
The brothers are unable to verbalize their feelings, choosing instead to keep their animosity bottled up. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that hate grows in silence. Had they been able to “talk it out” the brothers could have avoided the tragic events that ensued.
When he is in Egypt as a slave in the home of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s “chief of staff”, his success and good looks (handsome features and beautiful complexion) feed his ego and he pampers himself and spends (too) much time on his hair. He is attracted to the Egyptian wealth and culture and the power he has gained in Potiphar’s house goes to his head. When Mrs. Potiphar first attempts to seduce him he is conflicted, as suggested by the Shalshelet note on the Hebrew word “V’yemaayn”, [“and he refused”].
[Note: The chanting of the Torah texts (cantillations) was introduced by Moshe ben Asher around the year 895. The chants are written and notated in accordance with special signs or marks to complement the letters and vowel points. These notations provide information on the syntactical structure of the text and are a commentary on the text itself, highlighting important ideas musically.They enhance the drama of the Torah and also provide insights. Shalshelet (related to the root word three) appears only four times in the Torah, always on the first word of the verse. It communicates vacillation, a feeling of doubt, anxiety and internal struggle.]
Mrs. Potiphar continues to attempt to seduce him day in and day out, but Yosef grows up and, inspired by the vision of his father Yaakov, ultimately and finally absolutely rebuffs her. He flees leaving his garment in her hand. She falsely claims to her household employees that she cried out when Yosef “came to lie with me”. When he returns at night and she repeats the lie to him, Potiphar becomes angry and puts Yosef in prison. Some observers think that he had been suspicious of his wife’s adulterous sexuality and earlier behavior. His anger way directed against her for maligning a man whom he admired. Indeed, argues Benno Jacob, had Potiphar really believed her, Yosef would have had to be sentenced to death.
When in prison and his fellow inmates (Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker) have dreams requiring interpretation, Yosef declares that “…dream interpretations come from God.” He asks that they tell him their dreams, hoping that God will favor him with insight to interpret them. As a trusted aide to the powerful Potiphar, Yosef must have been aware of the “players” and the politics that prevailed in Pharaoh’s palace. The chief butler recounts his dream in which a vine with three branches of clusters ripen into grapes. He takes the grapes and presses them into Pharaoh’s goblet and places the goblet in Pharaoh’s hand. Bechor Shor and Ibn Ezra, among others, reason that Yosef must have known that Pharaoh’s birthday was three days off and that on that day Pharaoh would forgive and release select prisoners. The chief butler’s attentiveness to his master’s needs and his master’s pleasure with him (presented in the dream as images of reality) led Yosef to “guesstimate” that the butler would be restored to his office. The chief baker’s dream contained images of his carrying three cake baskets on his head and of birds swooping down and eating the baked foods in the top basket that had been prepared for Pharaoh. Yosef, noting the baker’s carelessness in not protecting the baked goods ; not making much mention of Pharaoh; and not waiting on Pharaoh realizes that the baker’s dream is communicating his fear for his life…and, based on his observations in the palace, predicts that his fears will be realized.
After he finishes his dream interpretations for the butler and baker, Yosef begs them to plead to Pharaoh for his release because “…I have done nothing that they should put me in this bor.” Nechama Leibowitz wonders why now, for the first time, he refers to the prison as bor, which means well or pit, and was the place he was thrown into by his brothers. She suggests that perhaps memory of the pit tempered his ego and self- worth, and shattered his “pride and illusions of grandeur”. This revised perception of himself was a key to his emotional development.