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Torah Sparks

December 17, 2011 – 21 Kislev 5772

Annual: Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial: 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 Joseph Prouser


Jacob shows marked favoritism toward his beloved son Joseph, provoking his other sons' bitter resentment. Joseph compounds their hatred for him with his habit of reporting unfavorably on them 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: "Day is Done, Gone the Son"

"Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, 'No, I will go down in mourning to my son in Sheol.' Thus his father bewailed him." (Genesis 37:34-35)

Derash: Study

"All this language of mourning and grieving suggests a certain extravagance, perhaps something histrionic. As the next verse tersely indicates, at the very moment Jacob is bewailing his purportedly dead son, Joseph is sold into the household of a high Egyptian official." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"Jacob's words mean either that he will mourn his son all his life, or that even in the grave he will continue to mourn him." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"Jacob died before his time. He should have lived to be 180, the lifespan of his father, but he died at only 147. In our verse, Jacob says, 'I will go down in mourning (avel) to my son in Sheol.' The numerical value of the word avel is 33 [aleph, bet, lamed: 1+2+30]. In effect, Jacob is saying, 'This incident, which will cause me much suffering, will cause me to go down to the grave 33 years early.'" (Rabbi David Feinstein)

"A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. But... there is no word for a parent who loses a child, that's how awful the loss is!" (Jay Neugeboren, An Orphan's Tale)

"Children are not supposed to die. Parents expect to see their children grow and mature. Ultimately, parents expect to die and leave their children behind. This is the natural course of life events, the life cycle continuing as it should. The loss of a child is the loss of innocence, the death of the most vulnerable and dependent. The death of a child signifies the loss of the future, of hopes and dreams, of new strength, and of perfection." (J. H. Arnold & P. B. Gemma, A Child Dies: A Portrait of Family Grief)

Questions for Discussion

Is Jacob's reaction to reports of Joseph's death extravagant and histrionic, as Robert Alter asserts? Or is the death of a child so truly devastating that lifelong mourning is an accurate description of the bereaved parent's emotional condition. Is it, as Jay Neugeboren demonstrates, literally an unspeakable loss?

What factors might have compounded Jacob's grief? The fact that Joseph was "killed" while on an errand for Jacob's? Jacob's recognition that his favoritism toward Joseph had been misguided and now was beyond correction? Conversely, his unrepentant favoritism? His suspicion that Joseph's brothers may have been involved in his death? The violent nature of Joseph's reported demise?

Rabbi Feinstein's gematria points to profound truths. Where else do we see the impact of Joseph's "death" on Jacob? Doesn't this comment also suggest that the brother's crime – if, in the end, not quite fratricidal indeed was patricidal, sending Jacob to an early death despite his eventual reunion with his beloved son?

Why does Jacob never confront his sons about their crime and deception, even in his personal deathbed messages? They knew for years how distraught he was and what pain they had caused their father. Did Jacob forgive them? Did he never really come to understand their deception even after seeing Joseph (perhaps they had been mistaken about Joseph's death, merely finding the bloody coat!)? Was the experience just too painful for Jacob to revisit? Was the fact of Joseph's survival so completely defining that Jacob simply ignored his other sons' offenses?

Theme #2: "The Man in the Ironic Mask"

"So Joseph's master had him put in prison, where the king's prisoners were confined. But even while he was there in prison, the Lord was with Joseph: He extended kindness to him and disposed the chief jailer favorably toward him. The chief jailer put in Joseph's charge all the prisoners who were in that prison, and he was the one to carry out everything that was done there." (Genesis 39:20-22)

Derash: Study

"Just as at the start of his career in Potiphar's house, Joseph gains favor in the eyes of the ruler of the prison house. Just as before, everything is placed in Joseph's hand. Just as before, Joseph prospers. We readers are again told that it was the Lord who caused Joseph to prosper, but we have absolutely no indication that Joseph is aware of God's providence. What Joseph knows for sure is that his talents are recognized and that he is once again on the rise, albeit in jail. We must wait to see whether his successes incline him more to feelings of gratitude or to feelings of self-importance. Will he again become the victim of his own prosperity? Much will depend, it seems, on what he has learned from his most recent fall from grace." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"Joseph was confident. What he continued to believe, was that it was given to him to constrain the world and the men in it to turn him their best and brightest side – and this we can say was confidence rather in himself than in the world. Circumstances were powerful; but what Joseph believed in was their plasticity: he felt sure of the preponderant influence of the individual destiny upon the general force of circumstances. Such was the nature of Joseph's confidence. Generally speaking it was trust in God." (Thomas Mann, Joseph the Provider)

"The word used for the pit into which he's thrown is the same word in Hebrew for the prison in Egypt. I think Egypt is the pit. But there is something else. Joseph names his second child Ephraim, 'God made me fertile.' Where? '— in the land of my affliction.' There you get the tension. He's fertile. He rises. So you can become fertile and creative and come to wholeness, even in the place of alienation. This speaks to the soul of every single human being." (Rabbi Norman Cohen, in Bill Moyers' Genesis)

"I cannot, if I am in the field of glory, be kept out of sight: Wherever there is anything to be done, there Providence is sure to direct my steps." (Horatio Nelson)

"We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing." (Robert E. Lee)

Questions for Discussion

What is the significance of the repeated pattern of elevated stature and dismal downfall throughout Joseph's life? Is it designed to teach Joseph humility and gratitude, as Dr. Kass proposes? Or does Joseph's uncanny ability to come out on top and in control serve to reinforce his self-aggrandizement, his self-perception as a favorite son, a man of destiny, blessed by Providence, not unlike Admiral Nelson's autobiographical statement? (It should be noted that Nelson also suffered personal pain and setbacks, losing both an eye and an arm in battle.)

Is Joseph a symbol of the people Israel, prospering in exile and contributing abundantly to the host nation? Or is Joseph an "everyman," as suggested by Rabbi Cohen, symbolizing all human beings' hopes and aspirations for success in the face of adversity and power in the face of powerlessness?

How does General Lee's insight speak to the Biblical text, and indeed to the national condition of the Torah's earliest Israelite readers/listeners? Is the ability to see Providence working in the long term (despite current vicissitudes and repeated trials) a crucial message of the Joseph narrative? Where else in the Bible (or, more broadly, in Jewish thought) is this ideal expressed?

Leon Kass asks rhetorically whether Joseph will "again become the victim of his own prosperity." How does the Torah answer this question? With a Joseph exercising ever greater, even autocratic power in Egypt and unassailable position within his own family? Or is Joseph's final downfall to be found in being forgotten by a future Pharaoh, and in the persecution and enslavement of the Israelite People in Egypt?

Halachah L'Maaseh

While the period of mourning for close relatives (sibling, spouse, child) normally is 30 days, we mourn for a parent for a full 12 months (Talmud Moed Katan 22B, Gesher Ha-Chayim 1:249), reciting Mourner's Kaddish through the eleventh month (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 376:4). It is appropriate to offer formal condolences to someone bereaved of a parent throughout the year of mourning (Yoreh Deah 385:2). Rabbi Beryl Wein explains that we officially mourn for a parent longer than for a child not because grief at the death of a child is less intense – quite the contrary. At the death of a parent, we may be tempted to rationalize, to accept the loss as an expected part of life inherent in the natural order. Mourning for a full year is intended to assure that we do not minimalize or dismiss the loss. No such danger attends the tragedy of a child's death: no parent would or could minimalize or dismiss such an event as "natural." The longer mourning period is not required under such tragic circumstances because like Jacob the bereaved parent will fully and intensely grieve as a matter of course, as a result of her or his emotional devastation. "Parents expect to see their children grow and mature. Ultimately, parents expect to die and leave their children behind. The death of a child signifies the loss of the future, of hopes and dreams, of new strength, and of perfection" (see Arnold & Gemma, above). May we see Scripture fulfilled: "God will swallow up death forever; and the Lord will wipe away tears from every face." (Isaiah 25:8)

Historical Note

Parashat Vayeshev, read on December 17, 2011, describes Joseph's descent into Egypt, his experiences in Potiphar's house, and his fateful imprisonment with Pharaoh's chief baker and wine steward. On December 17, 1914, The British Empire declared Egypt a protectorate.

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