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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-yeishev 5754
Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
December 4, 1993    20 Kislev 5754

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The opening verse of our parasha conveys a degree of finality. "Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:1)." His exile is over. The text depicts a man drained by unrelenting stress who has come home to die. The abuse heaped upon him by Laban, the prospect of facing Esau, the rampage of his sons against the inhabitants of Shehem, and the loss of his beloved Rachel in childbirth has left him groping for the solace and security of home. The words of King Lear suggest the mood:

and 'tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths while we Unburden'd crawl toward death.
The midrash, too, sensed in the nuance of the words "vayeshev" (and he settled) and "be-eretz megurei aviv" (in the land where his father had lived) an ebbing of life's forces and a yearning to be rid of all obligations. But the midrash does not take kindly to retirement. It frowns on the attitude I often hear in Florida that "I did my duty and put in my time up north; down here, don't bother me." Society has too few good people to be able to afford the luxury of such non-involvement.

And so the midrash claims that when good people seek to finish their days in tranquility, God rebukes them. "Is it not enough that peace awaits them in the world to come? They yearn for it now as well? Look at our ancestor Jacob who sought the same thing, but to no avail. His life was immediately disrupted by his son Joseph."

Of course, Jacob contributed to Joseph's downfall. He favored him no less than Isaac did Esau. Jacob's respite is shattered by a repetition of the behavior pattern he had witnessed in his childhood. Not Reuben, his first born, but Joseph, his eleventh son, receives from him the gift of an ornamented tunic, the sign of future leadership. We are stunned at the obtuseness and inevitability of it all. Again we feel the tension between the divine and human levels of the narrative. Individual freedom is restricted by divine intention. Jacob's foible is the catalyst which brings about the sale of Joseph into Egyptian servitude and the eventual relocation of his entire family.

Yet the Torah is not without empathy for Reuben. When the brothers seize Joseph near Shehem (a place designated for catastrophe, according to R. Yosi), it relates that Reuben stayed their hand from fratricide by suggesting merely to throw him into a pit, adding that Reuben intended "to save him from them and restore him to his father (Gen. 37:22)." Furthermore, to his credit, he did not join his brothers as they feasted after their dastardly act, perhaps within earshot of Joseph's cries, though his absence denied him the chance to thwart Judah's proposal to sell him to a caravan of traders heading for Egypt. When Reuben did return some time later to discover that Joseph was gone, he tore his clothes in grief and rebuked his brothers. Clearly the Torah preserved the record of this non-event to single Reuben out as a man worthy of leadership.

But the real contrast of characters in the Joseph story is between Joseph and Judah. The early chapters of the saga cast Judah as the villain. It is Judah who proposes to sell Joseph rather than kill him; if you wish, a gesture toward saving his life. More striking, it is Judah who leaves his father in the midst of his inconsolable grief to marry a Canaanite woman. Many commentators have seen chapter 38 as a puzzling interruption in the narrative flow. Joseph has just been sold to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's courtiers, and Jacob is devastated by the news of his son's violent death. Why now turn to Judah's romantic escapades?

Precisely to contrast Judah's lustful behavior with that of Joseph in Potiphar's house. Nothing could be more abhorrent to Abraham's clan than marrying a native. So much of the Genesis narrative is devoted to recounting the extreme measures taken to avoid such unions, including the despicable massacre of the male inhabitants of Shehem in last week's parasha (ch. 34). Whereas Joseph resolutely rebuffs the many seductive advances of Potiphar's wife, Judah takes the first pretty young Canaanite he lays eyes on for a wife and eventually ends up having sex with his daughter-in-law, whom he mistakes for a prostitute.

The whole sordid affair provides the backdrop to Joseph's virtuous conduct. Despite the distance from home and loss of contact, Joseph continues to govern his life by moral standards that would have pleased his father. Indeed, sensitively, the rabbis imagined that on one festive occasion when Joseph and his master's wife found themselves alone in the house, it was only the sudden appearance of Jacob's face in a vision that saved his son from sexual transgression.

Joseph's youthful dreams are not to be denied. The outcome of the story is known from the start. And yet within these parameters, the drama and artistry of the biblical narrative is remarkable. With the principle of primogeniture discredited, the stage is set for a struggle between Joseph and Judah, from whose loins will come the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, over the leadership of Jacob's children. In the course of this narrative, as we shall see, the character of Judah steadily matures. The surface simplicity of the text hides incredible thematic riches.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch



The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-yeishev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.