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Parshat Vayeshev 2018
The story of Yosef is the ultimate amalgamation and climax of themes that have appeared in earlier stories about our ancestors in the book of Bereshit. Today’s parsha may be the most intense and highly charged in the Torah, equaled only by the opening of parshat Vayigash in two weeks. Consider the themes that appear here: intrigue, sibling jealousy, trickery, grief, sex and mysticism. And as is the case in most dramas – and comedies – the action is spurred by lies, misunderstandings and a failure to learn from experience.
We have been reading about dysfunctional families since Avraham. His barren wife Sara pushes her maidservant on him to produce a child, which she does, and then explodes with jealousy, enmity and abuse. Yitzhak and Rivka’s favoritism almost leads to the murder of Yaacov. Here we ramp up the conflict. Yaacov not only prefers Yosef over the other 10 brothers, he also manifests his favoritism with the gift of a coat.
Yaacov was, we know, a dreamer, everywhere he went he had dreams. But in today’s parsha, dreams reach new heights. They sow hatred against Yosef. And then dreams progress one step further – they not only occur, their interpretation forms an integral part of the story.
In past weeks, we saw that Esau wanted to kill Yaacov. He was just waiting for his father to die (so that the murder wouldn’t kill Yitzhak). In today’s story, Yaacov’s sons are a bunch of rednecks (no insult intended to rednecks), two of whom were responsible for the reprehensible slaughter of a whole town. Here, all 10 brothers have just thrown their brother into a pit in the desert. They sit around a campfire eating their lunch and debating how best to get rid of the brat, while in the background their sibling, panicked out of his mind, is wailing in the pit. What were thoughts of murder (Esau) come dangerously close to implementation.
In the story of Yaacov, we get the feeling that Yaacov was always seeking a way to get the upper hand, to win, to outsmart whoever was in his way. In today’s story, Yosef is not trying to get ahead. He just feels he IS ahead and must relate his wonderful dreams of grandeur. His dreams tell him he will be great! He doesn’t have to do anything else!
The theme of clothing appears again and again. We remember that Yaacov dressed up like Esau to obtain Yitzhak’s blessing. Today, Yaacov gives Yosef the ultimate sign of preference: a Technicolor coat which becomes Yosef’s trademark as well as a red flag that constantly irritates the bullish brothers.
Yaacov gets away with his camouflaged clothing, and so do the brothers. They send the hated Technicolor coat now dipped in animal blood back to Yaacov and say, “Do you recognize this coat?” and of course Yaacov jumps to the conclusion that a “wild beast has devoured Yosef.” But does he really believe that? Deep down, maybe not. According to Chazal, this is why he continueג
This same theme of clothing appears in a side story about Yehuda and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Tamar has been widowed twice – her two husbands, both sons of Yehuda – have been killed by God. In desperation, when she realizes that Yehuda will not give her his third son to marry (for fear he will meet the same fate), Tamar removes her widow weeds and dresses up as a prostitute, in order to seduce Yehuda. After the one-time stand, she sheds those clothes and returns to normal.
And in the penultimate chapter of today’s parsha, clothes play a role in the attempted seduction of Yosef by Potiphar’s wife down in Egypt. She grabs him by his clothes and he just runs out of them and of the house. She is left holding the clothes, which she uses as proof of Yosef’s attempt to rape her.
Yosef is now in prison and feeling that things just can’t get worse. He was sold down the river by his brothers. He was running Potiphar’s household until Mrs. Potiphar gave the #Metoo movement a bad rep by falsely accusing him of attempted rape. By the way, the fact that he was only sent to prison and not executed indicates that Potiphar may not have believed his wife 100%.
And then, in the final chapter of the parsha, the story comes full circle. We started with Yosef dreaming of grandeur (and almost being murdered as a result). Now he is in prison, protected by God’s grace and living as well as one can in such a situation, when others share their dreams with him.
Instead of dreaming, he has to interpret others’ dreams, and he does, to the joy of one dreamer and the anguish of another. This act of interpretation rekindles his hope for release but it is quickly extinguished. The Chancellor of the Wine Cup, the one who receives Yosef’s good dream interpretation, does not remember Yosef.
So in a way Yosef is the quintessence of all the patriarchal stories until now. He is the child who is almost killed (like Yitzhak and Yaacov before), he is the one who is almost raped (like Sarah and Rivka with Avimelech), he is the one who dreams dreams and then (innovation of innovations) begins to interpret them. Read the story of Yosef and you have read the stories of all our ancestors.
This is melodrama at its best. It’s a rollercoaster story written in a style that is compelling and sophisticated. It is also filled with moral messages that our forebearers very often missed. Let’s hope that we can, finally, learn from them.