A ‘BISSEL’ OF TORAH Parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

by Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

Clothes and Garments play a major role in this week’s Torah Parsha (Vayeishev). They appear to be a precursor of change to both the characters and the lives of those, of those who are affected. We first meet Joseph, (beloved son of Jacob), not as an ‘interpreter’ of dreams, but one who dreams of his own success. For thousands of years, both sages and the midrash have been baffled as to whether Joseph’s dreams represent his own personal ambitions; or, whether he can project the nature of his dreams upon others, to his own advantage. It had been obvious to his many brothers, that Jacob was openly partial to Joseph. Jacob believed that Joseph was superior, not only in his character, but also in his intellect and work ethic. As his older brothers worked in the field, Jacob knit a beautiful, multi-colored coat, and named him as supervisor of the fields. It was not uncommon for Joseph to complain of his various brothers, for idleness, and/or mistakes in their respective responsibilities. Finally, the tension between Joseph and his brothers reached a climax. Joseph is stripped of his exquisite coat, and sold to the Ishmaelites to be a slave in Egypt. His coat is torn, and dipped into the blood of goat, which was slaughtered for this purpose.

The ruined coat is brought to Jacob, who cries out “My son is torn into pieces. A savage beast must have devoured him”(1). As they watched their father grieve, believing his favorite son was killed, all of the brothers were mute. Not one felt any empathy for their father, to provide him an iota of ‘hope’, that maybe Joseph escaped the beast, and is still alive. After Joseph’s capture and sale into slavery, an episode about Judah (one of Jacob’s sons) and Tamar (Judah’s daughter-in-law), interrupts the narrative. Judah had moved away from his brothers, and had three sons, with his Canaanite wife (i.e. Shua). Their names were Er, Onan, and Shelah. Tamar married Er, who died soon after. Judah sent his next oldest son, Onan to marry Tamar(2). Onan also dies. Judah, fearing for the life of his third and youngest son, Shelah, sent Tamar back home to her father’s house to “wait for Shelah grows up”(3). Tamar waits patiently, and even when Shelah is of marriageable age, Judah still balks.

Tamar takes her fate into her own hand.  She hears that Judah is travelling nearby. She covers her head with a veil, and dresses like a prostitute(4). Joseph propositions her…In return, she asks for his ”signet,  the cord around his waist, and the staff in his hand”(5). After the encounter, Judas searches for her, so that she can return the items she took, excepting the money he paid for her. The ‘Prostitute’ is nowhere to be found. Tamar has rid herself of the prostitute’s apparel, and replaced them with her normal widow’s clothing.  Three month’s later, Judah sees her, and learns that she is pregnant, with his child. She proves it by returning the signet, the cord, and the staff. Judah publicly repents, saying: “She is more than right than I, inasmuch as I didn’t give her my youngest son, Shelah”(6).  By deceit and cunning, Tamar keeps Judah’s seed alive. Judah, very humble, goes to visit his father, Jacob, and apologizes for all of his misdeeds. Although Judah is frequently overlooked, he proves to be at one human and a hero(7).

After the Judah/Tamar interlude, the Torah returns to Joseph’s fate. Potiphar, a prominent Egyptian buys Joseph from the Ishmaelite traders, and appoints him as head slave of his hosehold. Potiphar’s wife is attracted to Joseph, although he consistently rejects her advances. One day, when alone with him, she “took hold of his comment and begged him to lie with her. “He left her with his garment, and fled from the house”(8). Potiphar’s wife twisted the story, and claimed that when she screamed and cried out, he left his garment and fled” (9). Joseph is placed in jail, based on her false allegations.

From this Torah Parsha, we learn the importance of considering all repercussions, before we speak or act, even if our words and actions appear innocent at the time.

(1) Genesis (39:32-3)
(2) The Torah: A Modern Commentary
(3) Genesis (38:11)
(4) Genesis (38:18)
(5) The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
(6) Genesis (38:28
(7) The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
(8) Genesis (39:18)