PARASHAT VAYESHEV - BIRKAT HAHODESH
December 24, 2005 - 23 Kislev 5766
Annual: Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 38:1-38:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 233; Hertz p. 145)
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 - 3:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 247; Hertz p. 152)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This week's portion begins with the great saga of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the first son born to Jacob by his beloved Rachel, is favored by his father. Jacob buys Joseph an ornamented tunic, sometimes translated "a coat of many colors." Joseph speaks about a dream where his brothers are sheaves in a field, bowing down to his sheath. In another dream, the sun, moon, and 11 stars all bow to him. His brothers hate Joseph.
Joseph goes to visit his brothers, who are pasturing their flocks in Shechem. The brothers see him and conspire to kill him, but one brother, Reuven, convinces them to throw him in a pit instead. The brothers sell Joseph to a group of passing Ishmaelites (or perhaps Midianites) who sell him as a slave down to Egypt. The brothers dip Joseph's coat in blood and bring it back to their father. Another brother, Judah, asks, "Do you recognize this? Is it your son's tunic?" Jacob is inconsolable at the perceived loss of his son.
The Torah digresses to tell the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah's oldest son, Er, marries Tamar, and then dies childless. His second son, Onan, who is obligated to have children in his brother's name, spills his seed upon the ground and also dies. Judah refuses to give Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah. The years pass, and Tamar disguises herself as a harlot on the roadway. She is impregnated by Judah, who gives her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge. When Judah learns his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he is infuriated. Tamar approaches him with the same words he had used with his father, "Do you recognize this?" Tamar gives birth to twins.
Meanwhile, Joseph is in Egypt where he is second in command in the home of Potiphar, chief steward of Pharaoh. Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph, and when he refuses, she accuses him of trying to rape her. Joseph is thrown into prison. There, when Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker tell their dreams, Joseph is able to interpret them. At the end of the portion, Joseph has been forgotten in prison.
Issue #1 - In the Pit
"When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it" (Genesis 37:23-24)
- The Torah teaches that the pit was empty, there was no water in it. Is it not obvious that if the pit was empty, there is no water? Rashi quotes the Talmud on this, "There was no water. No water, but there were snakes and scorpions." (Shabbat 22a) Why is this important? Perhaps the Talmud is emphasizing how terrible the pit was, filled with snakes and scorpions.
- Joseph's life goes from highs to lows to highs to lows. One moment he is the favorite son, gloating over his brothers. Then he is at the bottom of a miserable pit, filled with snakes and scorpions. One moment he is the chief assistant to Pharaoh's chief steward, with all the powers of the household. The next moment he is languishing in jail. And yet, by next week's portion, he will be the second most powerful man in Egypt. Frank Sinatra sang, "That's life, that's what all the people say. You're riding high in April, shot down in May." These lyrics seem to apply Joseph's life. Perhaps less dramatically, they apply to all of our lives.
- Perhaps one message of this portion is that we all go through ups and downs. We have moments when we are on top of the world, and then suddenly we are cast into a pit. But we are never in the pit forever. We find a way to climb out of it. Jews, through centuries of suffering, have been strangely upbeat about the future. That is why Israel's national anthem is Hatikva, the hope.
- How can these ideas help someone who feels that he or she is in a pit? How can people get past the sad, difficult periods of life? The book of Psalms teaches, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm for you are with me". We can walk through it, and God is with us. Was God with Joseph in the pit? Can we tell if God is with us? Can we tell only after a down-time episode?
Issue #2 - Sexual Ethics
"After a time, his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, lie with me. But he refused" (Genesis 39:7-8)
- When Joseph refuses to lie with Potiphar's wife, he says "He has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?" (Genesis 39:9) Joseph says that such a sexual encounter would not only be a sin against Potiphar, but a sin against God. Does God care about our sexual lives?
- Suppose Potiphar and his wife had an open marriage, where both agreed to allow such sexual encounters. Would it still be a sin? Are there any absolutes when it comes to sexual behavior? Why has God taught that adultery is wrong, even if both the husband and the wife agree to it?
- The Torah is deeply concerned with how people conduct their sexual lives. Judaism teaches that sex is good; in fact it is a gift from God. Sex with the right person, in the right context, with the right attitude, becomes a way of serving God. To use the language of Judaism, sex is a mitzvah. The mitzvah is not simply procreation, but the mutual pleasure of the sexual act itself. To live a life of sexual abstinence is considered a tragedy. Nevertheless, there is another message from Jewish tradition that is more sobering. Sex, in the wrong context, with the wrong person, with the wrongattitude, can become a destructive force. Sex can destroy families, damage marriages, spread disease, lead to premature pregnancies, or become addictive. The sexual act itself is morally neutral, a mere biological act. All depends on context. In what context is sex destructive, and it what context is sex a way of serving God?