Parashat Va’yeshev does not stop yielding materials for thought, and even though the subject matters that are presented there have been investigated again and again (see Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yeshev), there seems to be more wealth to be mined therein, as we found out last Shabbat when we studied it once more.
The Parasha’s account of the conflict between Yoseph and his brothers, in particular the sons of Bilha and Zilpa, is marked by an absence of “shalom”: And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him (37:4 emphasis added). But even though the situation was not resolved, when the brothers went to Shechem to shepherd their father’s flocks, Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." So he said to him, "Here I am." Then he said to him, "Please go and see if it is well with your brothers with [see the peace of] and well with the flocks [see the peace of], and bring back word to me" (37:13-14 emphases added). Yisrael sought information as to the peace of his sons when they were, supposedly, doing their work in Shechem. Many years earlier, when he returned to the Land after his sojourn in Aram, Shechem was the first location where he found himself. Scripture tells us that… Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem” (33:18). That “safely” is actually “shalem” – which is whole, unharmed (and perhaps ‘in one piece’). Yet even though we would expect this condition of “shalem” to lead to “shalom,” that was not the case. The fallacy of “shalom in Shechem” (or Sh’chem, in Hebrew) was perpetuated when Hamor and Shechem his son, the “lords of the land” who were also involved in the rape of Dina, presented to their compatriots the so-called peaceable offer of Yaacov’s sons: “These men are at peace with us. Therefore let them dwell in the land and trade in it. For indeed the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters to us as wives, and let us give them our daughters” (34:21 emphasis added). ‘Sure, if the flesh and greed are gratified, we can all be happy and at peace!’ The all-time guarantee for the ultimate “shalom” in the world is sex, money and position. And when those are not to be had, the spirits of lust, greed and jealousy prevail, as is so well demonstrated in Parashat Va’yeshev.
Well, since the desired “peace in Shechem” did not materialize in any one of those episodes, it is no wonder that the shepherds, aka infamous man-slaughterers, did not lead their flocks to the green and serene pastures of these environs, but continued on. As for Yoseph, he was directed by “a man” to follow them northward, to Dothan. Notice that Yoseph’s informant did not require much information; he already knew who the “brothers” were, and neither was he ignorant as to their whereabouts. Even so today, if we earnestly seek for our brothers, the Man will not withhold any information from us. He will lead us directly to them. It is just a matter of having the ears to hear and the heart to obey.
That Yoseph is the protagonist of our story is not difficult to determine. Scripture, however, continues to stress that fact, not only overtly but also by using subtler means.
In chapters 37 and 38 the verb y.s.f, – to add, to repeat – which is the root of Yoseph’s name, appears four times:
Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more – va’yosifu (37:5).
And his brothers said to him, "Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more - va’yosifu - for his dreams and for his words (37:8).
And she conceived yet again - va’tosef - and bore a son, and called his name Shelah. (38:5a).
So Judah came to the realization and said, "She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son." And he never knew – ve’lo yasaf - her again
And so, even when the various episodes involve other individuals, named and unnamed,
the Word wants to make sure that the reader is aware of the central role of Yoseph in all of them, although the connection to his person will be made much further down the road (such as with Yehuda’s story in chapter 38 which will pertain to the role of Yoseph much much later).
Yoseph’s immediate destiny is marked by down spiraling, first into a pit and then by being sold to merchants who were on their way… down to Egypt (37:25 emphasis added). However, in the process he was also pulled up (from the pit), being indicative of the fact that each of his downfalls will also mark a ‘lifting up.’
But, in the meantime, the opening verse of chapter 38 says: “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt” (emphasis added). This event was taking place simultaneously with Yehuda’s departure from his country, from his family and from his father’s house (cf. Gen. 12:1): “It came to pass at that time that Judah departed [literally, went down] from his brothers” (38:1 emphases added). What is the difference between each of those descends? Yehuda’s guilt and self-condemnation caused him to choose a way out, which led to his spiritual back sliding, whereas Yoseph was brought down not of his own volition. There is a very clear distinction in the respective responses of these two men. The one is moving from bad to worse, without looking for a redemptive opportunity, whereas the other, who was subject to others’ decisions, makes good of every opportunity that comes his way. However, in each of those cases there exists the overriding sovereignty of YHVH, in spite of what may be ‘natural’ inclinations
(e.g. Proverbs 16:9). When Yehuda left his family, he followed his heart’s leaning
– va-yet (meaning “incline” or ‘lean”) and went over to his Adulamite friend Hirah upon whom he was relying for help. Later, when he sees the “harlot,” it says that “he turned – va-yet - to her,” once again following his inclinations and desires. On the other hand, after Yoseph was subject to someone else’s lust, it says of him that YHVH “was with Yoseph and [literally] –va-yet - inclined/turned his mercy/loving kindness/grace [chesed] toward him” (39:21 emphasis added).
Yehuda’s downward journey is accompanied by many mishaps, although every now and then there is evidence of an attempt on his part to do the “right thing.” How typical of guilt, shame and self-condemnation to lead us to try and cover them up by “good works”!
Thus, his sons’ names provide a clue to these feeble attempts. Yehuda named his firstborn “Er,” meaning “awake.” He was hoping that his depression and spiritual slumber could be redeemed by having this firstborn. His second son was called “Onan” – “on” being strength. Isn’t it interesting that Rachel named Binyamin, Ben- Oni, “son of my strength” as his birth depleted all of her strength and brought about her death? As to Yehuda’s third son; the latter was born under strange circumstances: “He was at Chezib when she bore him” (38:5). Who was at Chezib? Was it the newborn, or was it his father? What is Chezib? Is it truly a place, or is it a description of a condition? Chezib means “lie, deception, falsehood.” Is it possible that Shelah was conceived in a lie and deception, and was therefore the son of another man, rather than Yehuda’s? Or was Yehuda away while he was born, causing his wife great grief? One way or another, Shelah’s birth was not a cause of great joy, otherwise why would Scripture take the trouble to record that fact that “he was in chezib” at his birth? Thus, the name Shelah could possibly mean “hers,” if that boy was not Yehuda’s biological son.
When Yehuda’s degeneration reaches its peak, he turns (as we saw above) to a prostitute, with whom he leaves his most precious possessions: signet, cord and staff. Like Easv, who for momentary satisfaction was willing to give up his birthright, Yehuda had given the ‘markers’ of his identity and authority to the one whom he perceived to be a prostitute. Interestingly, when he went looking for her to retrieve his treasures and to cover up his embarrassment and pride ("Let her take them – the objects - for herself, lest we be shamed; 38:23 emphasis added), he used the term “k’desha,” which is a “temple prostitute.” However, that word shares its root with “kadosh” – set apart and holy. That word is repeated 3 times in verses 21 and 22 of chapter 38. Again, a hint as to the true nature of this woman, who turned out to be “kdosha,” holy and “righteous,” as Yehuda himself came to realize (v. 26). Interestingly, at Yehuda’s lowest point of spiritual and moral collapse YHVH intervenes by using what would appear as the very symbol of that lowly condition.
Among the many lessons that Yehuda was taught by Tamar, his daughter in law, he also had to realize that things are not always what they seem, a lesson that he had to apply one more time when many years later he met the ‘mighty Egyptian ruler.’