NOTES ON PARSHAS VAYESHEV
Ninth Parsha in Bereishis.
Psukim 37:1 – 40:23
"Alas, I will go down to Sheol, to my son, grieving!"
And Yakov refused to be comforted.
1st Aliya: Yosef is seventeen years old. His father Yakov gifts him a marvelous coat, which causes his brothers no end of envy, the more so as they are forced to listen to his two dreams. The second dream also angers his father.
[Jozef is in deze aliya zeventien jaar oud. Zijn vader Jakov geeft hem een mooie overjas, tot jalousie zijner broeders, die bovendien nijdig zijn twee dromen moeten aanhoren. De tweede droom ergert ook zijn vader.]
2nd Aliya: The brothers are off in the countryside with the herds. When they see Yosef come to spy on them they wish to kill him, but Reuven suggests dumping him in a nearby pit (probably with the intent of saving him later).
[De broeders zijn met de kuddes op het platteland. Wanneer Jozef aankomt om hun te bespieden, in opdracht van Jakov, willen zijn broeders hem vermoorden, edoch Reuven raad aan hem in een nabije put te werpen (waarschijnlijk van plan zijnde hem daar later uit te bevrijden).]
3rd Aliya: While the brothers eat their meal at some distance from the pit, Yehudah proposes selling Yosef as a slave. However, when they come to the pit, Yosef is gone – he was pulled out by Midianites and sold to passing Ishmaelites. The brothers take his marvelous coat and drench it with the blood of a slaughtered kid, so as to show it to their father as indication that they bear no blame – a wild beast surely killed their brother. Yakov is deeply grieved, and weeps for his child.
[Terwijl de broeders op enige afstand hun maal nuttigen stelt Jehoedah voor Jozef als slaaf te verkopen. Maar als ze weer bij de put komen blijkt Jozef reeds verdwenen – hij is door Midianieten eruit gehaald en aan een passerende groep Isjmaelieten verkocht. De broers nemen zijn schone overjas en drenken het in het bloed van een hunner geiten, om het aan hun vader Jakob te tonen als aanduiding dat hun geen schuld zouden hebben – een wild beest heeft wellicht hun broer doen sneuvelen. Jakov is diep ongelukkig, en weent om zijn kind.]
4th Aliya: In this Aliya the scene shifts to the tale of Yehudah and Tamar. Yehudah’s eldest son, Er, dies, and because of Levirate law his widow marries his brother Onan. Onan has no intention of progenating with her, as he does not wish to give his brother descendants and does not conceive of any obligation towards Tamar. When Onan, because of his behaviour, also meets an untimely end, the only son left is Shelah, Yehudah’s youngest. Yehudah fears that Tamar will prove deadly to this one also, and avoids marrying her to Selah. Tamar disguises herself as a trollop, and gets herself pregnant by Yehudah. Three months later, when her pregnancy becomes apparent, she discretely proves who the father is. Yehudah realizes what she has done for his family, and later the twins Peretz and Zerah are born.
[In deze aliya veranderd het relaas van scene. Jehoedah’s eerste zoon, Er, sterft, en omwille Leviraatsrecht trouwt zijn weduwe Tamar met diens broer Onan. Onan wil absoluut geen kind in haar verwekken, daar hij zijn gestorven oudere broer geen nakomeling gunt, en zich niet in enigerwijze aan Tamar verschuldigt weet. Als Onan vanwege zijn gedrag ook tot sneuvelen komt resteert slechts Jehoedah’s kleinste zoon. Jehoedah vreest dat Tamar ook deze fatal zal wezen, en laat het achterwege haar met Selah te huwen. Tamar vermomt zich als ene vrouw van lichte zeden, en verleidt Jehoedah zo dat hij een kind bij haar verwekt. Wanneer na drie maanden haar zwangerschap niet meer te verschuilen blijkt, bewijst zij op diskrete wijze wie de vader is. Jehoedah realizeert wat zij voor zijn familie heeft gedaan, en later worden de tweeling Peretz en Zerah geboren.]
5th Aliya: The tale now turns again to Yosef, who is sold to Potiphar. He shows abilities and integrity, and is appointed as chief over the household.
[Het verhaal keert nu weer naar Jozef, die aan Potifar verkocht word. Hij geeft blijk van begaafdheid en deugdzaamheid, en word als hofmeester van het huishouden aangesteld.]
6th Aliya: Potiphar's wife, on the other hand, has entirely different plans for the young man. She tries to seduce him, but when he refuses her attentions she accuses him of attempted rape. Yosef is jailed in the royal prison.
[Potifar’s echtgenote, daarentegen, heeft geheel andere plannen voor de jongeman. Zij tracht hem te verleiden, maar wanneer hij daar niet op in gaat, beschuldigt zij hem van een poging haar te verkrachten. Jozef word opgesloten in de Koninklijke gevangenis.]
7th Aliya: Even in jail Yosef’s talents cannot be hidden. While there he explains the dreams of the royal wine steward and the royal baker. After three days the wine steward gets his former position back, but the baker will be condemned to death. Even though Yosef implored the wine steward not to forget him it will be years before Yosef gets to leave prison.
[Zelfs in de gevangenis kunnen de talenten van Jozef niet verscholen worden. Aldaar legt hij de droomen uit van de Koninklijke wijnschenker en de Koninklijke bakker. De wijnschenker krijgt na drie dagen zijn voormalige positie terug, de bakker zal ter dood worden gesteld. Hoewel Jozef aan de wijnschenker had gevraagd hem daarna niet te vergeten duurt het nog jaren eer Jozef de gevangenis uit komt.]
Note: It isn’t till twelve years later that Yosef leaves prison. He wil be appointed viceroy over Egypt, and he will start his own family. The Midrash states that he marries the daughter of Potiphar who is also the daughter of Dinah. Think about this please for a few moments before rejecting the idea as absurd.
He will have two sons, like Avraham, Like Yitzhok, like Yehudah. But unlike them, and you are meant to note well the contrast, his two sons will both have a share among the Bnei Israel – the tribes of Menashe and Efraim.
During seven years of a regional famine, Yosef’s brothers come to Egypt to purchase food, and since they do not recognize him, what can only be described as French comedy hijinks result. In the end the new maturity of Yehudah is shown, the genuine remorsefulness and improvement in character of his brothers is proven, and, revealing himself, their long lost brother, Yosef is reconciled tearfully with his kin.
YOSEF AND THE SHVATIM
Ovadiah Sforno shpers that when the brothers saw Yosef coming in his fancy coat, they assumed that he intended to find fault with them or cause them to sin.
This would mean Yakov cursing them or Hashem punishing them, both eventualities being to the advantage of Yosef. Either way they would be justified in considering him as intending them harm. By this logic Yosef is a rodef, and one is obligated to forestall a rodef, even kill, lest one is oneself killed.
Sforno argues that they thus constituted a beis din (judicial court), and rightly could decide to execute their brother if such proved necessary. He further offers, as substantiation of this assertion, that after tossing him into the pit they proved their righteousness, and the saintliness of their characters, by being able to calmly sit and dine.
While in many ways Sforno is a fascinating read, one should not lose sight of his tendency to provoke. And in this case he is deliberately trying to force us into argument. If Yosef is a tzadik, and if his brothers also are tzadikim, how is the situation he suggests even possible?
Either the brothers, OR Yosef, represent agrieved parties. Someone has to be wrong.
But we know that ALL the brothers are tzadikim – we must find a way to understand this situation. And here is where the passage of time becomes crucial. We saw in the previous parsha that Esav was reduced to tears on meeting the brother he had not seen in decades. Yakov himself had come to think differently of his brother, and was determined to face him and finally deal with his own earlier trickery.
If repentance, Teshuva, is that which turns mere human iron into fine steel, then that is what will be needed for these immature men to become the fathers of tribes. And that takes time.
In that light, we shall see Yehudah realizing his flaws, and Yosef polishing his abilities. Both, when this tale is finished, will have changed much from what they are now. And as these two, so all of them will be much matured, and much improved.
YEHUDA AND TAMAR
Yudah loses two sons as a parallel to Yakov losing one son, and loses his wife as a match to his wife losing a son and his daughter in law losing a husband. Yudah is now alone, except for a son whom he wants to protect until adulthood and a widowed daughter-in-law for whom fears will not be fortunate for him or his progeny.
Tamar may have been significantly older than Shelah, even if she had been younger than Er. But if she is not to have Shelah as a wife, what is to become of her? Even if she were free to remarry, would she be able to find another mate, being no longer prime marriage material and associated with two dead husbands besides? If she is to remain a widow, how will Shelah provide for her when he inherits from his father? She'll be mere bagage then, with none to speak for her. If Yudah will not do the honourable thing and marry her to Shelah now, why assume that Shelah will ever even take care of her in the future?
[Levirate marriage does not seem like a solution to the shidduch crisis, does it? Note how both Tamar and Shelah are effectively kept out of circulation, and the only free agent is Yehudah.]
Yudah seems unconcerned, and pursues his own life at his own speed - not a perfect father, nor a perfect father in law. And as we shall see, not exactly a perfect widower either.
But he does have his friend Hirah, his drinking buddy and homeboy for over a decade and a half.
It is while he is on the road with Hirah that Tamar, veiled as a cultic prostitute, engages with him, and accepts certain things as pledge that he will send payment. Though when Hirah goes to find her, in order to hand over the agreed upon payment, she is gone.
Three months later, like Molly Bloom, Tamar is big with seed.
[This might very well be when the phrase 'mah yomru ha Goyim?' was first uttered.]
In Bava Metzia (59a) it says “someone who shames another in public has no portion of the Olam HaBa” (the world to come). A comparison is drawn with the case of King David, descendant of a Moabite, and responsible for the death of BasSheva’s husband, who furthermore fathered Solomon by the widow. But pointing this out, like accusing Yehudah, would have been undiplomatic (and indiscrete – shaming those who hold power of life and death is often a form of suicide).
When Yehudah saw the evidence (staf, cords, signet), it caused a major shift in his thinking – he realized that not he but Tamar was the righteous one, whereas he himself was flawed on many counts, and had much to be ashamed about.
Psook 38:26 “it was because I did not give her my son Shelah”.
Note that the two sons which Tamar gave him effectively replace the two sons struck down for their evilness - Er and Onan. Who says you don't get a second chance?
I would suggest that you also this week read the next parsha (Miketz) immediately, because Vayeshev cannot be seen on its own – it really is the first part of a longer narrative, which is best understood as a complete unit.
In Miketz we shall see how the relationship of the sons to their father Yakov changes - no longer driven to rivalry as siblings, they instead become responsible men whose concern for the whole will make them worthy progenitors of a nation.