Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

November 27, 2010 - 20 Kislev 5771

Annual: Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial: Genesis 37:1-37:36 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 - 3:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 247; Hertz p. 152)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

Jacob shows marked favoritism toward his beloved son Joseph, provoking the bitter resentment of the rest of his sons. Joseph compounds their hatred for him with his habit of reporting unfavorably on their behavior to their father. Jacob presents Joseph with a “coat of many colors.” Joseph describes his dreams to his brothers: their sheaves of grain bowing to his; the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing to him. The brothers' disdain for their privileged and ambitious brother is inflamed further. Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, who are pasturing flocks at Shechem. As Joseph approaches they conspire to kill him, but at Reuben's behest they modify their plan, agreeing to throw him into a pit instead. Reuben intends to return to the pit to rescue him.

Before he can help Joseph escape, however, the brothers modify the conspiracy further. They sell him to a caravan of traders, variously identified as Ishmaelites and Midianites, and the traders sell him into Egyptian slavery. To conceal their crime, the brothers dip the tunic, the symbol of Joseph's favored status, in animal blood, and show it to Jacob as evidence of his beloved son's death. Jacob mourns Joseph's violent end: “A savage beast has devoured him!” In Egypt, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh's chief steward.

The Joseph narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah's son, Er, dies after displeasing God through an unspecified offense. Judah instructs a second son, Onan, to enter into a levirate marriage with his widowed sister-in-law, Tamar. Under this arrangement, Onan's children by Tamar would be counted as Er's offspring. Onan impedes conception of an heir to his brother, giving rise to the term “onanism.” Onan also dies for his sin. Judah procrastinates in arranging a union between Tamar and his youngest son, Shelah, fearing for Shelah's life. Some time later, Judah is widowed. He travels to Timnah, where Tamar contrives to meet him. Disguised as a prostitute, and veiled to conceal her identity, Tamar arranges a liaison with her father-in-law, and Judah leaves a staff and signet with her as promise of payment. Tamar, still incognito, disappears with Judah's collateral before being paid, and she conceives Judah's twins. When her pregnancy becomes apparent, Judah assumes she has had an illicit affair and orders her killed. When she produces his staff and signet, he understands that he has been duped into a levirate marriage of sorts: “She is more righteous than I!” Perez and Zerah are born of their union.

The narrative returns to Egypt, where Joseph rises to high position as major domo in Potiphar's household. Joseph repeatedly repels sexual advances by Potiphar's wife, who claims Joseph has assaulted her, showing a garment she seized from him as evidence. (This claim is a striking parallel to the false evidence used by Joseph's brothers to document his alleged death.) Joseph is imprisoned by a furious Potiphar. In prison, Joseph interprets dreams for the imprisoned royal cupbearer and baker. He accurately foretells their restoration to office and execution, respectively - fates meted out at a celebration of Pharaoh's birthday, but despite Joseph's pleas for his intervention and advocacy, the cupbearer, restored to his position, forgets Joseph's cause.

Theme #1: You da man!

“When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?' He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?' The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.'” (Genesis 37:14-17)

Derash: Study

  1. “The Joseph novella, the last thirteen chapters of the Book of Genesis, may be the first modern piece of literature. Nowhere in it does God do or say anything. But evidence of divine (albeit anonymous) manipulation abounds. What possible literary value could there be in this irrelevant side trip to the field of Shechem? Nothing at all except, perhaps, getting the reader to wonder about why there are seemingly irrelevant side trips occasionally populated by unnamed strangers whose words change everything.” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Five Cities of Refuge)
  2. “Chance - that's code for the divine.” (Phyllis Trible)
  3. “Possibly another divine messenger (like the ‘man' in 32:25).” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
  4. “The best portion of a good man's life: his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” (William Wordsworth)
  5. “While he was at home his environment was a spiritual utopia. The sanctity of such a home, surrounded by the twelve tribes, guided by the Patriarch Jacob, was the extreme antithesis of the center of immorality to which he was to be exiled. It would be so simple to forget who he was and to lose sight of his preconceived spiritual goals. He was, therefore reminded, ‘What do you seek?' Remember where you were going, who you were, and what were your objectives in life!” (Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum, Peninim on the Torah)
  6. “Joseph is wandering in the wilderness. He clearly is lost. An ish, a man, who is a total stranger, approaches him and asks if he can help. Through a circuitous series of events, Joseph eventually ends up in Egypt, where he ultimately saves his family and the entire Jewish people. Had not this unknown ish stopped Joseph in the wilderness and asked if he could help, it is not implausible to think that Jewish history would have died along with those who perished during the ensuing famine in the Land of Israel… This nameless ish is one of my heroes. It is my hope that we all merit this anonymous appellation. That we constantly and consistently help others create their own Jewish history by simply asking, just like our ish, ‘How can I help?'” (Richard Moline)

Questions for Discussion

God's presence in the Joseph cycle is subtle, but God is not entirely absent. How is this subdued divine role necessary to the general themes of the narrative? What are the parallels to the Book of Esther, famous for (among other things) the absence of any explicit reference to God? Between Joseph and Esther herself? How are these biblical personages distinctly different?

Where else in Genesis have we seen chance or coincidence signal God's providential presence? To what extent have chance encounters or turns of fortune drawn us closer to God - or to an awareness of God's plan - in our own lives? In modern Jewish history?

How does identifying the man as an angel (Rashi specifies that it is the Angel Gabriel) change our reading of the parshah? Does this result in a more or less satisfying approach to the biblical narrative?

Who are our unsung or anonymous heroes? To whom have we offered simple “little nameless acts of kindness” and service that, from the perspective of the recipient, amounted to the heroic?

Theme #2: Slandering or Philandering?

“‘This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.' When his master heard the story that his wife told… he was furious. So Joseph's master had him put in prison. (Genesis 39:14-15, 19-20)

Derash: Study

  1. “It is the fate of princes to be ill spoken of for well-doing.” (Marcus Aurelius)
  2. “The chapter reminds us four times that ‘the Lord was with Joseph' while he was enslaved. Joseph's willpower, in other words, is rooted in his faith and God's love…. What's remarkable about Joseph is that he is the first person to resist sexual temptation.” (David Plotz, Good Book)
  3. “Shouldn't Joseph have been executed if the accusation were true? Rather, Potiphar knew it was a lie, but imprisoned Joseph so he would not cast doubt on his own children's parentage.” (Pesikta Zutrata)
  4. “Nothing can be more hurtful to an honorable man than that he should be accused of bad faith.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
  5. “If thou art called to pass through tribulations; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; if thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and if thou shouldest be cast into the pit, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.“ (Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants)

Questions for Discussion

Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith's description of the adversity and tribulations to which a moral, religious person may well be subjected seems closely to reflect his biblical namesake's biography (disloyal “brethren,” separation from His father, being cast into a pit, false accusations). Smith himself was persecuted, jailed, and ultimately murdered. To what extent is his conclusion, that such suffering “shall be for thy good,” an accurate reading of the biblical Joseph's experience? Of his own legacy?

While the accuracy of Joseph's youthful dreams ultimately is validated, he is never actually exonerated of the charges leveled against him by Potiphar's wife. Is there evidence in the text that this weighed heavily upon him, as we might infer from Gandhi's observation? Which of Joseph's trials seemed to be the most hurtful and formative experiences? What does this say about his character and sense of honor?

How important is it to determine accurately what motivated Joseph to spurn the advances of Potiphar's wife? Was it, indeed, religious faith and a sense of God's will? Was it fear of consequences? Was it loyalty to a benefactor? Was it, as some midrashim suggest, a desire not to dishonor his father? Was he simply not attracted to his would-be seductress? (We have no real information on her age or appearance, in contrast to the chapter's depiction of Joseph as “well built and handsome.”) Was Joseph's chaste refusal necessarily a reflection of his moral compass?

Does the fact that “the Lord was with Joseph” necessarily mean he was a man of religious principle?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Joseph's travails begin with his tale-bearing against his brothers. The Chafetz Chayim lists 31 separate mitzvot that may be violated when a person spreads (or listens to) lashon ha-ra (usually translated as gossip). The most basic prohibition, and the verse that seems most on point regarding the early stages of the Joseph saga, is Leviticus 19:16: “Do not go about as a tale-bearer among your people.” Unlike the western concept of slander, lashon ha-ra, the prohibition against derogatory or damaging communication, is forbidden even if the information is true.

Historic Note

We read of Joseph's imprisonment (and the events that ultimately led to his release) on Shabbat Parshat Vayeshev - November 27, 2010. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, founder of Chabad Chassidism and author of the Tanya, wasreleased from a St. Petersburg prison on November 27, 1798. Solomon (Shneur Zalman) Schechter was amed for his rabbinic forbear.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016