December 8, 2012 – 24 Kislev 5773
Annual (Gen. 37:1-40:23): (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial (Gen. 39:1-40:23): (Etz Hayim, p. 238; Hertz p. 147)
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes, NJ)
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 must remember this..."
"So his brothers resented him, and his father kept the matter in mind." (Genesis 37:11)
"What caused Jacob to ‘keep the matter in mind'? He knew that every dream
contains some absurdity; in this dream, that segment was Joseph's mother
bowing down, since she had been dead for many years. This one point, however,
proved to Jacob that the rest of the dream was true, and that some day they
would all bow down to Joseph." (Chatam Sofer)
"Jacob took the brothers' jealousy in stride, since one can feel jealousy toward
everyone – except one's son." (Netziv, Ha'amek Davar)
"'Envied.' The repetition of the dream was a sign to them that it was more than
a dream. They envied him his assured greatness. And now that envy was added
to hatred, they were in a mental state to do him violence. One of the hardest
things to learn is to recognize without envy the superiority of a younger brother.
‘Kept the saying in mind.' He noted with satisfaction that his designation of
Joseph as the future ruler of the family seemed to have Divine approval."
(Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)
"Here it appears that Jacob appreciates that Joseph's dream is an important
prediction about the future, yet denounces it in order to keep peace.... Does
Jacob believe that Joseph's dreams will come true? Does he rebuke his special
son for the sake of the brothers, to alleviate their envy? What is Jacob keeping
in mind: the dream, or the jealousy of his children? Despite the ambiguity of the
text, it is obvious that both Jacob's relationship with his sons and Joseph's
relationship with his brothers are highly strained." (Ora Horn Prouser, Esau's
"A person is born with feelings of envy and hate. If he gives way to them, they
will lead him to violence and crime, and any sense of loyalty and good faith will
be abandoned." (Xun Zi, Confucian philosopher c. 300-200 BCE)
Questions for Discussion
Rabbi Hertz calls our attention to the fact that the brothers' reaction to Joseph's first
dream was hatred, while the second dream evoked jealousy. Is this because they were
convinced by the second dream that Joseph would, indeed, rise above them? What else
might account for the brothers' envy?
Consider Professor Horn Prouser's description of our verse as "ambiguous." How is our
reading of later events changed by the alternative readings – that is, whether it was the
brothers' enmity or Joseph's portentous dreams that Jacob "kept in mind"?
Xun Zi discusses the dangers of both emotions evinced by the brothers: hate and envy...
as well as the results of those feelings: violent crime and disloyalty. Was Joseph's
suffering inevitable? Is this entire narrative a study not so much in Providence as in
Are the readings of the Netziv and the Chatam Sofer mutually exclusive? Did Jacob
underestimate the explosive potential of his sons' conflict even while perceiving the
prophetic quality of the dreams?
If, indeed, "one of the hardest things to learn is to recognize without envy the superiority
of a younger brother," what does this say about the Bible's frequent recourse to the motif
of an ascendant younger brother? (Think Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim, Moses,
David...) What message is the Bible asking its readers to "keep in mind"?
Theme #2: "How low can you go..."
"...Joseph was taken down to Egypt..." (Genesis 39:1)
"Of both Abraham (Gen. 12:10) and Judah (Gen. 38:1), it is said that the ‘went down.'
This implies that they lowered the moral level of their behavior. Joseph, however, did not
lower himself; he was transported against his will. The episode in this chapter shows him
maintaining a high moral standard." (Humash Etz Hayim)
"How quickly and how far does the family of Yaakov descend in this parsha! Hatred
festers unchecked among the brothers, and turns to violence against Yosef who is thrown
down into a pit and sold ‘down' to Egypt as a slave. The Torah draws a parallel between
this descent of Yosef's (hurad) and that of Yehudah, who ‘goes down' (vayered) from his
brothers in search of a wife and lands in his own trouble. Indeed, Yosef's descent leads
the whole family to descend; in the short term, it leaves his father in a permanent state of
mourning and his brothers with an uneasy sense of guilt, and in the long term, it literally
brings the rest of the family to descend to Egypt as well, and eventually, to be enslaved
there for hundreds of years." (Rachel Anisfeld)
"For me the most potent message of the Joseph story is the motif of yeridah and aliyah,
descent and ascent. Time and again, Joseph goes down — only to be lifted even higher
up. This week's story ends with Joseph in darkness once more... but I believe that the
story calls us, as it calls Joseph, to trust that better things are coming. That if we are
mindful of God's presence, of God-with-us even in our darkest hour, the darkness will
always give way to light." (Rabbi Rachel Barenblat)
"Even in decline, a virtuous man increases the beauty of his behavior. A burning stick,
though turned to the ground, has its flame drawn upwards." (Saskya Pandita, 13th
century Tibetan spiritual leader)
"My life has been one long descent into respectability." (Mandy Rice-Davies)
Questions for Discussion
Compare Joseph's series of descents to those of Jonah, who went "down" to Jaffa, down
into the hold of the ship, down into the sea... What do these Biblical personages have in
Why the theme of descent and decline in the Joseph narrative? Is it irony (a la Rice-
Davies – the somewhat scandalized young British socialite who, as it happens, converted
to Judaism and moved to Israel!)? Is it a polemic about the moral turpitude of Egypt? Is
it a sustained effort to maximize the triumph that Joseph (and by extension the People
Israel) is fated to enjoy?
Granted that Joseph did not lower himself morally in his interactions with Potiphar's
wife... Was his moral comportment otherwise of the highest caliber? In his relationship
to his brothers? His father – with whom he never made an effort to communicate, even
after rising to power in Egypt? In his later economic administration of the ancient superpower?
Consider Rabbi Barenblat's hopeful message. When have you experienced God's
presence, and faith in a brighter future, during particularly dark times? How might we
cultivate such faith? How is this question – and therefore our text – related to the
observance and meaning of Chanukah?
In Parashat Vayeshev, read on December 8, 2012, Joseph rebuffs the persistent sexual
overtures of his master Potiphar's wife. On December 8, 1949, Jule Styne's "Gentlemen
Prefer Blondes" opened at New York City's Ziegfeld Theater.
Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev 5773 is Erev Chanukah: the first Chanukah candle is lit at
the conclusion of Shabbat. The procedure for lighting Chanukah candles is a matter of
debate (See Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 230). In the
synagogue, Chanukah candles are lit following Maariv (the evening service), but before
Havdallah. The person lighting the candles relies on the blessing Atah Chonantanu in the
Amidah as the formal conclusion of Shabbat. At home, however, Havdallah should
precede the lighting of Chanukah candles. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 681:2,
Magen David ad loc., Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139:18). One should light candles at home
even if present for lighting in the synagogue. See Orach Chaim 671:7. The blessing
Shehechiyanu is added to the two Chanukah berachot on the first night of the holiday (or,
if one missed candle-lighting on the first night, at the first candle-lighting observed).