Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’shev – B’resheet (Genesis): 37 – 40
"Now Jacob dwelt ("va’ye'shev") in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years of age…." (Gen. 37:1,2). The root for the verb "to dwell" is y.sh.v. (yod, shin, vet) and means to “dwell, reside, sit, remain.” According to the scripture just quoted, Ya'acov lived in his father's land, but the “account of his generations” ("toldot") is related through the life of his son - Yoseph. Incidentally, Esav's chronicles (in chapter 36), as well as Yishma'el's (25:12-18), are simply lists of names, whereas the Patriarchs' chronicles are narratives presenting increasing revelations of Elohim and His involvement in the lives of those who bear His name.1 Additionally, identifying Ya'acov's dwelling place with "the land where his father had sojourned," and tying up his annals with the name of his son (Yoseph) serve to illustrate the typical Hebraic approach to the continuum of the seed. Those living in the present do not identify solely with their contemporaries; they are no less connected to their ancestors as well as to their progeny.
In telling the story of Ya'acov, the narrative highlights the story of Yoseph who was favored by his father. As a mark of his affections Ya'acov made his son a special tunic: "k'tonet passim," a tunic of "passim." Unlike the commonly held view that this robe, or tunic, was multi-colored, the word "passim" actually indicates that the robe was extra long; covering the feet and especially the flat of the hands (“pas” is the palm of the hand or sole, while the verb p.s.s – pey, samech, samech – means to disappear, e.g. Ps. 12;2, which means that the hand would ‘disappear’ because of the ampleness of the cloth). Another source interprets “pas”as a stripe. It was of a style "such as the daughters of the king dressed themselves" (in 2nd Sam. 13:18 David's daughter, Tamar, is recorded as wearing such a robe). By clothing Yoseph in a princely garb, Ya'acov communicated to the rest of his sons that he had ordained him to inherit the birthright. It is no wonder then that Ya'acov's favored son incurred the wrath of his brothers, even before he shared his dreams with them. When Ya'acov heard Yoseph's second dream, he too became somewhat exasperated with this spoiled brat. However, the text goes on to tell us that "his father kept the saying in his heart" (37:11). Another parent, who on one occasion "treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart," and who at another time "hid [the words] in her heart" was Miriam, Yeshua's mother (Luke 2:19, 51). In her case, as well as in Ya’acov’s, these “things” were prophetic and had to do with a grand destiny of a son.
Ya'acov proceeded to send Yoseph on a mission to Sh'chem, where his brothers had taken the flocks. The father may have been concerned for his sons' safety in Sh'chem, as that town's residents most likely remembered them only too well.2 In verses 13 and 14 we read: "And Israel said to Joseph, '… Come and I will send you…. So he sent him from the valley of Hebron…." Toward the end of the story of Yoseph, in B’resheet (Genesis) 45:8, the following words are said by the latter to his brothers who, likewise, had been sent after him to Egypt: "So now it was not you that sent me hither, but Elohim…."3 The commentator goes on to say that "this verse supplies the key to the understanding of the whole story, which unfolds a dual level of the mission. There is the obvious mission which Ya'acov sends his son on, but underlying this mission lies the hidden (deep) workings of Providence Who is sending the descendants of Avraham to Egypt." It is this connection to Avraham which brings the "vale of Chevron" (ve. 14) into the picture, even though Chevron was in a mountain and not in the valley.
Our commentator continues: "Emek ("valley" of) Chevron is referring to God's mysterious and deep prophecy to Avraham, and is a play on the word "emek", literally "deep place".4 To that we would add, that the episode of the father (Ya'acov) who is sending his son to seek "the remainder of his brethren [who] will return…" (Micha 5:3), also forms a parallel picture of the heavenly Father sending His Son to bring back to Himself His children (the sons of Yisrael/Ya'acov). Let us also take note of Yoseph’s response to being sent, “here am I” – “hineh’ni,” being a condensed form of “hineh ani” – “behold here I am.” Although a common idiom, which we have encountered even up to this point (e.g. Gen. 27:18), what comes to mind is another ‘send off.’ In Yisha’aya (Isaiah) 6:8 we read the following: “And I heard the voice of YHVH, saying, whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, here am I [hineh’ni]; send me!“ (Italics added).
Ya'acov sends Yoseph from Chevron, which is in Yehuda, to Sh'chem which is in Shomron (Samaria), from where Yoseph goes on to Dotan (Dothan), also in Shomron, and is then taken to Egypt ("the world"). This route becomes a geographical prototype foreshadowing the journey of the Gospel and its witnesses, from Yehuda to Shomron and to the uttermost parts of the world (ref. Acts 1:8). In Egypt, Yoseph indeed proves to be a faithful witness to the Elohim of his fathers in word and deed, never failing to give Him credit - as we shall see later.
Back in Dotan, while Yoseph is naked and no doubt thirsty and hungry in the pit he had been cast into by his brothers (ref. 37:23, 24), the latter are sitting down to eat bread. “Bread” is "le’chem," of the root l.ch.m (lamed, chet, mem) which is also the root for the verb "to fight," and for the noun "war" ("milchama"). The men eat their bread - lechem - while in their hearts there is a war-like attitude - milchama - toward their brother. Proverbs 4:17 says of the wicked: "they eat the bread of wickedness." The verb for "eat" there is "la'cha'mu" (of the root we just looked at), which normally would be understood as "fight," making this verse applicable therefore to the wickedness manifested by Yoseph's brothers. Shlomo Ostrovski comments here that Yoseph’s brothers had no idea that some day they would seek out their victim for the very substance by which they were now satisfying their hunger 5, while denying him of it.
In the meantime, a caravan of merchants passed by and Yehuda, using his pragmatism to suppress his guilt, suggested selling Yoseph to them (ref. ver. 25-28). Later, in the family home, a great turmoil was caused by Yoseph's (supposed) death, particularly so since Ya'acov could not be comforted. Yehuda, therefore, 'ups and leaves,' or in the words of the text he, "departs from his brothers and descends" ("va'yered" - "and he went down") to Adulam (38:1). While in that state of separation and descent, which led to a decline, Yehuda married a Canaantie woman who bore him three sons. The narrative is plainly in a hurry to make a point, as straight away after these sons' birth we are told of the firstborn's marriage to Tamar. That two of Yehuda's sons were displeasing to YHVH, who took away their lives (ref. ve. 7-10), is stated as a matter of fact. Without wasting time and words, the narrative goes on to tell us the story of Tamar and her insistence to "raise up the name of the deceased" (Ruth 4:5). Tamar's real identity and motive are only discovered when she produces a pledge in the form of a seal, cord and staff left to her by her father-in-law, upon her demand to be paid for the “services” she provided him when she masqueraded as a harlot. The pledge given to Tamar is "era'von," of the root a.r.v., which we observed in "erev" - "evening" (in Parashat B’resheet, Gen. 1-6:8). This pledge is a guarantee for that which is to come. Indeed, without it Tamar would have been burnt at the stake (ref. ve. 24, 25). But more than just saving the life of Tamar, it also guaranteed that YHVH's principle of redemption was implemented; that is, that life was brought forth from the dead, while also insuring the continuity of what was to become the tribe of Yehuda.
In verse 21 Yehuda is seen looking for the "harlot" (of verse 15), calling her here "k'desha," which is translated "temple prostitute." K'desha shares the same root as "kadosh," holy, set apart (k.d.sh. kof, dalet, shin). Once again we encounter a linguistic paradox, determining that while 'set apartness' can be for YHVH's sake and for His purposes, it can also be for other purposes; it is only real-life action which imbues words with meaning, and not the mere formal symbol which any given word represents. Thus, we see here that the "k'desha" turns out to be "k'dosha" (“holy”, feminine gender), or as her father-in-law put it: "She is more righteous than I" (ve. 26). When it is her time to give birth, Tamar, like Rivka, has twins who, like the former pair, have an innate 'knowledge' of the importance of the birthright. Again a competition over who is to be born first, is at hand. Ultimately the “breaker," the "portetz," wins and is therefore named Peretz (ve. 29). Many years later, in Micha 2:12 we read that "the breaker goes up before them. They break out, pass through the gate and go out by it. So their king goes on before them and YHVH at their head." The preceding verse informs us that the subjects of this description are those who are being gathered out of Ya'acov and are the remnant of Yisrael who are to be "put together like sheep in the fold, like a flock in the midst of its pasture they will be noisy with men." "Noisy" in this reference is "tehemena," which is of the root "hamon" that we had encountered in Parashat Lech Lecha (Gen. 12-17). It is this "hamon" (multitude), which was symbolized by the letter “h” (hey) that was added to Avram's name, making it Avraham.
Yoseph is now in Egypt, "mitzrayim" - the narrow place of adversity - but "YHVH was with Joseph, so he became a successful man…" (29:2). "Successful" takes us back to the word "matzli'ach" that we studied in Parashat Cha’yey Sarah (Gen. 23-25:18); where we noted that it means to “cause to advance." It is quite evident who caused Yoseph to advance, so much so that even his pagan master, Potiphar, recognized it (v. 3). According to Studies in B’resheet, Yoseph's "master saw and heard Yoseph make mention of the name of his God and attribute his success and abilities not to his powers but to the Almighty."6 This conclusion by the sages is not unfounded. In fact, it is borne out by what Yoseph says on various other occasions. In 39:9, when warding off the advances of Potiphar's wife, he exclaims: "How then could I do this great evil and sin against Elohim?" In 40:8, when he was asked to interpret dreams while in prison, he responded: "Do not interpretation belong to Elohim?" Yoseph will continue to mention the name of his Elohim even when brought before Par'oh (Pharaoh), in the next Parasha.
Potiphar's wife, in her attempt to cover up her own disloyalty and dishonesty, tried to implicate Yoseph. She, like so many others in the course of history, subtly enlisted the various members of her household to join her in an all out attack on Yoseph. In the process of her "unscrupulous defaming of Yoseph she makes subtle differentiation between her phrasing of the account to her slaves and subsequently to her husband. She does not employ the term "slaves" when addressing the slaves themselves. Yoseph is simply a Hebrew. To her husband, however, she says, "the Hebrew slave." In order to win over her slaves and gain their sympathies she is at pains not to create any feeling of solidarity among the slaves for Yoseph, as one of them. After all it was a common thing for masters to denounce their slaves. They would naturally side with their fellow sufferer. So she subtly changed her tone and stated that is was not one of them, but a stranger, a Hebrew, the common enemy of all of them. To strengthen the impression and arouse their hostility for Yoseph she does not say that the Hebrew slave came unto me, but rather: "see, a Hebrew was brought unto us, to mock us" (39:14). In short, the Hebrew man has not only wronged me but all of us; he has dishonored the whole Egyptian nation… Potiphar's wife in her effort to gain sympathy lumps her slaves together with herself as part of one family. The common enemy is the Hebrew. The immense gap is forgotten, the enormous class distinction between slave and master is overlooked in the cause of temporary self-interest."7
This Parasha mentions two women, whose stories are told side by side. In both cases the women are involved in sexual promiscuity. However, in spite of the fact that it was Tamar who actually had the opportunity to carry out her heart’s intent, while the second, Potiphar’s unnamed wife did not, it is the first who is declared righteous (39:26) for having pursued, at all costs, the righteousness of Elohim, i.e. life from the dead in the form of redemption. The lesson, which is so poignantly presented here is that the appearance of things is not always the sum of their substance.
Consequently, Yoseph is put in prison and just like an echo from his previous experience, we read the words: "YHVH was with him, and whatever he did YHVH made to prosper ("matzli'ach")" (39:23 italics added). Although our Parasha ends with Yoseph seemingly being forgotten and once again being repaid evil for the good he had done, this is just the beginning of what is to become a glorious career.
The nation of Yisrael-in-the-making is learning the principles of redemption, as each of its figureheads (Yehuda and Yoseph) is exposed to powerful personal experiences pertaining to YHVH's kingdom principles.
1. Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem 1976, 1999.
3. Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed
Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
5. Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem 1976, 1999.
6. Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed
Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.