"Now Jacob dwelt ("va’ye'shev") in the land where his father had sojourned, in the
. 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” or “pass on,” e.g. Ps. 12;1, 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.
The Parasha’s account of the conflict between Yoseph and his brothers, in particular the sons of Bilha and Zilpa (ref. 37:2), 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” (v. 4, emphasis added). But even though the situation was not resolved, when the brothers went to Shechem to shepherd their father’s flocks, “
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
[‘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. Some years
earlier, when he returned to the Land after his sojourn in Israel , Shechem
was the first location where he found himself. Scripture tells us that… “Jacob came safely to the city of Aram ” (33:18).
That “safely” is actually “shalem” –
which is whole, unharmed (and perhaps ‘in one piece’ as we noted last
week). 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 Shechem
Ya'acov may have been concerned for his sons' safety in Sh'chem, as that town's residents most likely remembered them only too well.2 Much latter, in B’resheet (Genesis) 45:8, the following words are said by the latter to his brothers who, like him, 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
." It is this connection
to Avraham which brings the " Egypt " (37:14)
into the picture, even though Chevron was on a mountain and not in the valley. Valley
Our commentator continues: "Emek ("valley") 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’ayahu (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).
Since the desired “peace in Shechem” did not materialize, it is no wonder that the shepherds, aka the soon to be criminals, did not lead their flocks to the green and serene pastures of these environs, but continued on their way. 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 (even if there is a cost involved). It is just a matter of having the ears to hear and the heart to obey.
What met Yoseph in Dotan was far from a hearty reunion. His brothers sought to kill him, and only by Reuven’s intervention was his life spared, and he was cast into a pit. While Yoseph is naked, and no doubt thirsty and hungry, his brothers sit down to eat bread (37:24-25). “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 with which they were now satisfying their hunger 5, while denying him of it.
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” (38:26 ).
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.
After sometime in Dothan, a caravan of merchants passed by and Yehuda, using his pragmatism to suppress his guilt, suggested selling Yoseph to them (ref. 37:25-28). 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 great decline in his life, 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 their lives (ref. 38:7-10), 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. in chapter 1). This pledge is a guarantee for that which is to come. Indeed, without it Tamar would have been burnt at the stake (ref. vs. 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.
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," gains the upper hand and is therefore named Peretz (v. 29). Many years later, the prophet Micah says, "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" (2:13). 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 – in reference to the Patriarch being a “father of a multitude of nations”), which was symbolized by the letter “h” (hey) that was added to Avram's name, making it Avraham.
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 be marked by a ‘lifting up.’
Yoseph is now in Egypt - "mitzrayim" - the narrow place of adversity - but "YHVH was with Joseph, so he became a successful man…" (39:2). "Successful" takes us back to the word "matzli'ach" that we studied in Parashat Cha’yey Sarah (Gen. 23-25:18), which is 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 asked to interpret dreams while in prison, he responds: "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.
But in the meantime, the opening verse of chapter 39 reiterates the direction: “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt” (emphasis added). This event took 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” (38:16), 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. Rachel named Binyamin, Ben- Oni, “son of my strength” as his birth had 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 a product of lying 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 the fact that “he was in chezib” at the birth? The name Shelah possibly means “hers,” reinforcing the fact that boy may have not been 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, later, when he went looking for her to retrieve his treasures and to cover up his embarrassment and pride (and said, "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 that which appears to be the very symbol of lowliness and humiliation.
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 to be, a lesson that he had to apply one more time when many years later he met the ‘mighty Egyptian ruler.’
Now back in Egypt, 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 her servant. 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. Therefore, she subtly changed her tone and stated that he 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’s two women, whose stories are told side by side, are both involved in sexual promiscuity. However, in spite of the fact that it was Tamar who actually ‘exercised’ her heart’s intent, while the second, Potiphar’s unnamed wife did not, it is the first who is declared righteous (38:26) for having pursued, at all costs, the righteousness of Elohim, i.e. life from the dead in the form of redemption.
After the episode in his master’s house, 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 (see 40:9-15, 21), this is just the beginning of what is to become a glorious career.
The nation of Yisrael-in-the-making is seen 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
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.