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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

בית ישראל" – בית הכנסת המסורתי בנתניה"

19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345

Parshat Vayeshev – 2016

Dvar Torah, prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 24th Kislev 5777, 24th December 2016

With Parshat Vayeshev we enter what is perhaps the most elegantly written story in the whole bible, the story of Yosef. He appears first as a spoiled, brash, papa’s boy snitch who tells about his brothers’ ill behavior, and we follow him in this parsha as his dreams of grandeur turn into a nightmare of betrayal by his brothers and slavery, lightened only by the grace of God who was with him.   

Yet, just as the tale turns us to Yosef in Egypt, a side-story appears with no apparent place in the narrative. It contains details about the life of Yehuda, Judah, the namesake of the tribe that will eventually produce the House of David.

Hazal noted this odd juxtaposition and came up with a few telling insights. These and others were collated by Dr. Mordechai Sabato of Bar Ilan University. Yet another connection appears in “The Secret Book of Kings”,  a work of fiction by Yochi Brandes that is based on facts interwoven with much imagination. The author, a Bible scholar, rewrites the stories in the Book of Kings from the viewpoint of King Saul’s family. We must remember that the Book of Kings, like all royal chronicles, was written from the point of view of the ruling family, David, who was from the tribe of Judah. But Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, Yosef’s younger brother, both of them born to Yaacov’s beloved Rachel. And in their view, Yosef should have been the leader.

Thus, the story in our parsha is actually the first chapter of the rivalry between Yosef and Yehuda for leadership of the family. Yaacov had no doubts: Yehuda would be the leader. In his final blessing, he says that all his brothers will bow down to him. Not to Yosef, whose dreams have his brothers and his parents bowing down to him. No, Yosef will be given wealth and success, but Yehuda will be the leader.

But does either one deserve it? Yosef, you remember, began as a spoiled brat. Yehuda suggested selling Yosef down the river to slavery in Egypt. Not very flattering to either figure.  The chapter inserted between the sale of Yosef and his actual adventures there, gives us a mixed picture of Yehuda.

Yehuda is attracted to a Canaanite woman whom he marries. This is already a black mark against him. After all, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov all made every effort to avoid marrying Canaanite women, and Esau was frowned upon for taking Canaanite wives.

Yehuda has three children. The first marries Tamar, and then dies. His brother Onan is expected to marry Tamar and name a child after the eldest. He prefers not to and he, too, dies. Yehuda, afraid that the fault lies with Tamar, sends the twice-widowed daughter-in-law back to her father, until such time as the third son is old enough to marry. Of course, Yehuda never sends him.

Yehuda’s wife dies, Yehuda goes north and is attracted to a “harlot”, actually Tamar in disguise, because she understands that the third son will never get to her. In exchange for services, she extracts the promise of a kid (goat), takes a deposit of Yehuda’s seal, cord and staff, and is impregnated by him.

Yehuda sends the kid, but the harlot is again a grieving widow, and when her pregnancy becomes known three months later, Yehuda orders that she be burned for infidelity. She sends him his seal, cord and staff, giving him the chance to admit his mistake and save her from death. He tells the truth and saves her.  

This is where Yehuda shows the first signs of maturity. Tamar has twins, one of whom will become the ancestor of David. The rabbis explain the twins as a reward to Yehuda (for his honesty), to replace his first two sons.

Here are some of the parallels between the stories of Yehuda and Yosef. A kid was slaughtered to bloody Yosef’s Technicolor coat and trick Yaacov, and also to serve as Yehuda’s payment to Tamar. The rabbis say: Yehuda used a kid goat to deceive his father and a kid goat tripped him up with Tamar.

The same expression is used in both stories to opposite ends. Yehuda and brothers send the bloodied coat to Yaacov and say, haker na – do you recognize it? He does, and assumes that Yosef was devoured by a wild animal. The brothers do not tell the truth, condemning their father to 17 years of mourning. Tamar sends back Yehuda’s deposit saying, haker na – and Yehuda tells the truth, saving her from death.

In this story, clothing is what attracts Yehuda to Tamar. In the next story Yosef is willing to leave his clothing in the hands of Potiphar’s wife, just to get away.

So, this is the opening volley in what will be a long-standing clash between two tribes for leadership. Both men grow in maturity and depth as the stories develop. Yosef from his pampered childhood to a responsible, God-fearing person, a tsaddik (why do so many prisoners suddenly become religious, I wonder). Yehuda grows from a spiteful brother to a responsible leader who is willing to become a slave to protect his youngest brother Benjamin.

People don’t change, they develop. Without some inherent integrity, such development will not occur. With integrity and courage, difficult transitions can produce remarkable results, as we see with Yehuda and Yosef.

Chanuka, which begins tonight, celebrates another Yehuda who showed his mettle as he and his family, the Hashmonaim, fought for our spiritual rights. (Of course, their history indicates a dissolution of integrity over the years, but at least for Chanukah, they showed us the way.) May we be blessed with leaders who have integrity and fortitude in the face of today’s many challenges.

Shabbat Shalom, Chanukah Sameach    


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