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Torah Sparks

December 20, 2008 – 23 Kislev 5769

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Jacob and his family are now settled in Canaan. The parashah begins when Joseph is 17 years old, the favorite of his father, who has given him the famous “coat of many colors.” Because of this and because Joseph is a tattletale, his brothers hate and envy him. Joseph’s reports of his dreams, in which his brothers bow down to him, only make matters worse. When Jacob sends Joseph to find out how his brothers and the family’s flocks are getting along, the brothers resolve to kill him. Reuven convinces them not to commit murder, so they decide to sell Joseph into slavery. They dip his special tunic in goat’s blood and bring it to Jacob as evidence of his favorite son’s fate. Meanwhile, Joseph is brought to Egypt where he becomes a slave in the household of Pharaoh’s courtier Potiphar.

The narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar and the birth of their sons Peretz and Zerach.

Returning to Joseph, he is successful in Potiphar’s house, earning his master’s trust. Yet when Potiphar’s wife fails in her attempt to seduce Joseph and accuses him of trying to rape her, Potiphar sends the young man to prison. Even in prison he is successful, earning the trust of the chief jailer. In time, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker are imprisoned. Each has a disturbing dream that Joseph interprets, telling the cupbearer that he will be restored to his position and the baker that he will be executed. Events unfold as Joseph has foreseen; still, the chief cupbearer forgets his promise to bring Joseph’s case before Pharaoh.

1. Judah's Descent

About that time Judah left his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. (Bereisheit 38:1)

  1. Why was this section added here, interrupting the story of Joseph? To teach that Judah’s brothers removed him from his rank [as their leader] when they saw their father’s grief. They said, “You said to sell him. Had you said to return him we would have listened to you.” (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. At the time Joseph was sold to Egypt because Judah told his brothers to do so rather than to return him home, thus bereaving his father, Judah was requited according to the fruits of his action by having two sons who would die prematurely, bereaving him doubly. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. Judah left [literally, went down] It was a descent for him, for he buried his wife and his sons. Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Simon and Rabbi Hanan said in Rabbi Yohanan’s name: He who commences a good deed but does not finish it buries his wife and children. From whom do you learn this? From Judah: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘what do we gain by killing our brother?’”(37:26). Now he should have led him home in person to his father. What was the result? He buried his wife and children. (Bereisheit Rabbah 85:3)
  4. What precedes this passage? “The Midianites, meanwhile, sold him in Egypt,” which is followed by “About that time;” yet surely Scripture should have continued with, “When Joseph was taken down to Egypt” (39:1). Rabbi Elazar said: This was done in order to bring two passages of “descent” together [“Judah left” (literally, went down, vayeired); Joseph was taken down (hurad)]. Rabbi Yohanan said: In order to bring the two phrases “examine” together [The brothers said, “We found this. Please examine it (haker na), 37:32; “And she added ‘Examine these’ (haker na)”]... (Bereisheit Rabbah 85:2)

Sparks for Discussion

Why does the story of Judah and Tamar appear here? Our commentators suggest several connections between this story and the story of Joseph. How would you explain the connection? Is there a better place for this story? Do you think this story is necessary at all? Why?

2. She is More in the Right

As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” (Bereisheit 38:25)

  1. She did not despair of defending and saving herself even as she was being taken out to be burnt, for her heart was strong as a lion. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. She did not want to put him to shame in public and to say, “By you am I with child,” but, “By the man to whom these belong.” She said, “If he will confess by himself, let him confess, and if not let them burn me, but let me not put him to shame.” Hence our rabbis said, “A person should rather have himself thrown into a fiery furnace than put his fellow to shame in public.” (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  3. The rebbi of Bahush raised a very sickly orphan. Once, a rich chasid insulted this orphan. The rebbi said to the rich man: “You no doubt assumed that when the Talmud states that one may not insult ‘his fellow’ that that refers to someone as respected as you. If so, you are utterly wrong. The rule applies even to the most despised person. The proof of this is from the case brought in the Talmud itself, namely that of Tamar. Now, for whom was Tamar willing to be burned to death rather than embarrass him? It was for Judah, if he did not confess. If he did not confess, it would mean that he was allowing an innocent woman and the twins whom she later would bear to be burned to death, and there is no more despicable a person than one who would permit such a thing. Yet Tamar was willing to die rather than to embarrass Judah, so that we see that it is better for a person to be cast into a fiery furnace than to embarrass even the most despised person.” (Rabbi A.Z. Werner, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)

Sparks for Discussion

Judah’s behavior is understandable if not admirable. Tamar’s is more difficult to explain. She is highly praised for her refusal to shame Judah in public, but should she be? What would you have done in her shoes? What do you think Tamar would have done if Judah had not confessed? Would she have sacrificed her life and those of her unborn children? How far should a person go to save someone else from public humiliation?

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