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Beit Hamidrash

Vayeshev - Jewish Guilt

By: Eli Fisher -Student

In this parasha, Jacob settles in Canaan. Joseph is his favourite son, but the brothers hate him (37:4). Joseph has dreams: one about sheaves of wheat, the other about the stars, the moon and the sun. Eventually, the...

Parashat Va'yeshev - Eli Fisher

In this parasha, Jacob settles in Cana'an. Joseph is his favourite son, but the brothers hate him (37:4). Joseph has dreams: one about sheaves of wheat, the other about the stars, the moon and the sun. Eventually, the brothers throw him in a pit, and he is sold to Midianites, only for him to end up with Potiphar and his wife. The story of Joseph is interrupted in its middle by another - that of Yehuda, his sons and Tamar, (Ch 38). Yehuda finds for his oldest son - Er - a wife, named Tamar. But upon his oldest son's death, Yehuda's second eldest son - Onan - is given to Tamar. When the second son dies, Yehuda is reluctant to let his third son marry Tamar. After time has gone by, Yehuda happens upon Tamar and does not recognise her, mistaking her for a prostitute. After he has relations with her, she reveals her true identity, shaming Yehuda. The flow of the narrative returns to Joseph. Joseph becomes successful and trusted in Potiphar's house, and Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph - to no avail, (Ch 39). She lies to her Potiphar, accusing Joseph of trying to seduce her, and Joseph ends up interpreting dreams in jail, at the end of the parasha (Ch 40).

This is a parasha whose complications and message has been lost to most people. Because it tells a story - one that has even infiltrated popular culture - many of its subtleties have gone unnoticed. Indeed, Parashat Vayeshev is a poignant story of sin, guilt, repentance and forgiveness. The intentions of this parasha are clear - to introduce a Theology of Repentance to our faith.

Unfortunately, readers of the Torah and its stories are often exposed to aspects of Judaism, which invariably colour their interpretations of the Torah. For example, most readers of the previous few parshiot have learnt - prior to reading the story - that Jacob is the ‘good guy', the direct patriarch of Judaism, God's chosen people, and after whom the Jewish state and nation are both named. Readers also already know Esav and Lavan, for example, are the ‘bad guys' - the patriarchs of our enemies, the symbol of our eternal adversaries. Thus, when reading the stories of Jacob's interaction with these two characters, Jews apologise for, and justify, any fault of the character, whom they know to be their ancestor, and chastise and accuse the traditionally ‘bad' characters as more villainous than they perhaps are. It is likely, to be sure, that the characters in the Torah who were the forebears of Judaism were generally heroic and noble; but that does not mean that they were always so, or that they were infallible. Nonetheless, the flaws of our patriarchs, or of any key hero in the Tanach for that matter, pose for us a profound dilemma.

For example, in the previous parashiot, Jacob openly and explicitly favours Rachel, one of four of his women. This leads to jealousy and competition between his wives. This itself is a flaw, a mistake, of Jacob. But what's worse is that Jacob doesn't learn his lesson. Already at the beginning of our parasha, we are told that Jacob is again explicitly selecting his favourites - this time amongst his children. There were envy (30:1) and hatred (29:31) amongst his wives, and these exist again, only now, amongst his sons (37:4), (37:6), and (37:11). Indeed, in both these instances, the exact same words, "sin'a (hatred)" and "kin'a (envy)" resurface to obviate the connection between Jacob's relationship with his women and with his children. Why hasn't Jacob learnt his lesson?

Moreover, in previous parshiot, the flow of the narrative is interrupted to inform us of Reuven's mistake (35:22) and the mistakes of Shimon and Levi (Ch 34). Now, the flow of the narrative is interrupted to disclose the mistake of Yehuda (Ch 38). The ‘interruption', the break or a deviation from the path of the story, is a very effective technique for directing attention to what is about to occur. It serves as a signal. The Torah thus goes to great lengths to emphasise how imperfect are the heroes of the Tanach.

But this is not so much a theological problem, as it is a lesson. The darshanim and m'farshim invest enormous amounts of efforts to illustrate the heroes of Tanach as devoid of flaws, but this is gratuitous and, simply put, inaccurate. It is clear for all to see that our heroes are fallible, are limited, make mistakes - and, in short, are human. Unlike the other monotheistic religions, Judaism's holy text does not deify its heroes and even castigates them when they err. The message is clear: Judaism is not a faith that expects perfection; rather, it is a faith that encourages human beings to improve.

Nowhere else is this more clearly expressed than in Parashat Vayeshev. Readers should be appalled by Joseph's unashamed arrogance. To be sure, Joseph's dreams and his ability to interpret them were divine. But his insistence that his brothers and father listen to them is unquestionably a fault in Joseph's character. The Torah quotes Joseph: "Shim'u na, ha'chalom ha'ze asher chalamti, - Listen, please, to this dream that I dreamt." (37:6), exposing Joseph's arrogant and boasting nature. Doubtless, Joseph is not an entirely innocent victim in what is about to happen to him.

But that is not to subtract from the blameworthiness of the Joseph's brothers. The brothers of Joseph, after whom Bnei Yisrael is named, commit an act warranting the severest of criticism. The act itself - throwing Joseph in the pit - is a famous one, far better known than the literary subtleties that surround that chapter. There are some sections in this story, though, that have been misinterpreted. In an attempt to make Joseph's brothers seem more humane (and therefore, more qualified ancestors of the Jewish people), we have interpreted the actions of two brothers - Reuven and Yehuda - too generously. In particular, we remember Reuven's attempt to rescue Joseph as noble, and Yehuda's reluctance to kill him as courageously moral. Neither, though, is true. Firstly, prior to this story, the only substantial reference to Reuven (ie: not the duda'im - which was more about Rachel and Leah, or his birth) was that he angered his father by sleeping with Bil'ha, Jacob's concubine. One would be justified in questioning whether Reuven's desire to bring Joseph back to Jacob ("Lahashivo el aviv" - To bring [Joseph] back to his father, (37:23)) was as noble as is traditionally understood, or if it were to merely regain favour in Jacob's eyes. This certainly explains why Reuven first reacts to finding out that Joseph was not there, by lamenting, "Ha'yeled enenu. V'ani? Ana ani ba? - The child [Joseph] is not with us. And what about me? Where should I go?" (27:30).

Furthermore, it is a mistake to view Yehuda as the moral conscience that prevented his brothers from committing an even more evil act. Yehuda's intentions are ambivalent: "Ma betza ki na'harog et achinu, v'chisinu et damo? L'chu nimkerenu la'Yishmaelim, v'yadenu al t'hi bo, ki achinu, b'sarenu hu." What profit is there in us killing our brother, and concealing his blood? Let's sell him to the Yismaelites and our hands will not be upon our brother, for he is our flesh [relative]." (27:26-27). It is unclear whether Yehuda's objection to slaughtering his brother was founded in some ethical connection to his relative, or based in his realisation that there exists more financial incentive (betza) in not killing Joseph. In any case, his ambivalence is more a sign of his immorality, than the opposite.

Thus, it would be a mistake to find any sign of morality in the story of Joseph's brothers abandoning him in a pit, though tempting it might be.

So we're left with the following situation. The brothers throw Joseph into a pit, for he was Jacob's favourite son. This led to his being sold to Potiphar, and then to jail. Joseph clearly suffers in all this. We also know that Jacob suffered greatly: "Va'yitabel al b'no yamim rabim... Va'yema'en l'hitnachem. Va'yomer: ‘ki ered al b'ni, aval sh'ola. Va'yevk oto aviv." And [Jacob] mourned for his son many days. And he refused to be consoled. And he said: ‘I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.' And [Joseph's] father [Jacob] cried for him. (37:35). But Jacob's suffering is somewhat deserved. As noted previously, it is largely Jacob's fault that this happened. He should have learnt his lesson vis-à-vis selecting favourites, but instead, repeats his mistake. Here, therefore, we have a classic case of Reward and Punishment - Jewish karma. Joseph and Jacob make terrible mistakes and pay for them.

The D'var Torah could finish here, except for one thing. What is the brothers' punishment?

Immediately after the sin of the brothers, the flow of the story is interrupted by the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Almost as though it were inserted randomly, we read about Yehuda's sons and their marriages to Tamar. It is not odd simply because of its location in the Torah, but also because we aren't usually told personal stories of the twelve sons. The exceptionality of this story perhaps suggests that Yehuda's feelings were prototypical, were paradigmatic, of the other brothers. The Torah needed not elaborate on every brother to express the same point.

Which feelings? We know that Yehuda played an important role in the attack against Joseph, and would naturally have felt extremely guilty for what transpired. It is probable that the memory of Joseph, and more specifically, what they did to him, would regularly arise, unexpectedly - relentlessly - persistently gnawing at Yehuda and his brothers for their entire lives. Like so, does the conscience operate. Random, external stimuli possess a power to trigger memories, never allowing a guilty person to forget what he or she did. And this is what the Torah eloquently, yet discreetly, teaches. The lesson is hidden below the surface, mirroring the inner feelings of guilt. The Torah reveals an extraordinarily apt appreciation for the internal activities of a guilty mind. In particular, it emphasises the notion that for a guilty person, his or her conscience does not only react to those stimuli that are obvious reminders of his or her guilt, (such as actual discussion of that event, or seeing a physical memento from that scene) but also those stimuli that only possess a hidden, almost arbitrary, ability to remind. More simply put, the Torah notes that when one feels guilty, almost anything can redirect one's mind to that event. And such is what happens to Yehuda.

Throughout Yehuda's life, memories of Joseph constantly reappear. One can only imagine how much this would have haunted Yehuda. ‘Yosef', as we are informed upon his birth, is derived from the etymological root of ‘L'hosif': "to add"; "to assemble"; "to gather"; "to collect". Twice in the chapter dealing with Yehuda's life, his biography, a derivative of Joseph's name appears - neither necessarily. The first instance takes place when Yehuda and his wife are giving birth to children: "Va'tosef od, va'teled ben..." (38:5). This is a grammatically strange way of expressing that Yehuda had another son: "...and he assembled another, and gave birth to a son." And, again, after Yehuda ends his relationship with Tamar, the Torah explains: "V'lo Yasaf od l'da'atah" (38:26). Again, a strange way of expressing the ending of their relations: "And [Yehuda] did not gather any more relations with her." Indeed, Joseph's name appears abruptly throughout Yehuda's life, just as does his memory. The interesting double-meaning of "v'lo Yasaf od" also implies: "and Yosef was no longer." Yehuda, and by implication his brothers, cannot forget what they did to Joseph. And, so too, they suffer.

We are still left with one more problem. Even if we can accept that the main characters of the Tanach are human and fallible, can we accept that they are villainous? Fortunately, we do not have to. Jewish theology explicates that one who is guilty has the ability to redeem oneself through admitting guilt and changing one's ways. It is no accident, then, that in Parashat Va'yeshev's sequel - Parashat Miketz - this is exactly what occurs. Joseph tests his brothers to see if they would leave a brother behind (42:20). And then, immediately after Joseph commands his brothers regarding Binyamin, the brothers, almost randomly, break down in despair for that which they did to Joseph: "Va'yomru ish el achiv: ‘aval ashemim anachnu al achinu asher ra'inu tzarat nafsho b'hitchaneno elenu v'lo shamanu. Al ken, ba'ah elenu ha'tzarah ha'zot." (42:21) And each [of the brothers] said to his brother: ‘we are guilty for our brother [Joseph] whom we saw when his soul was endangered, when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen. For this, we are in this trouble. The Torah does not wish for Jews to be ashamed of their ancestors, nor does it wish for Jews to deify them. The Torah simply wishes for Jews to learn from the Avot - the forefathers. It is not that they are perfect, but that they are human beings, vulnerable to sin, but capable enough to realise the need to repent, to improve, to strive toward perfection.

Thus, Parashat Vayeshev is a profound insight into the psychodynamics of a guilty conscience, and the Jewish theology of repentance. It functions as an introduction to the notion of redeeming oneself, and not being irreparably guilty for one act. But this story serves as an articulate reminder that Judaism does not unrealistically expect us to be infallible, perfect and complete. Judaism teaches us to be only what we can: limited and imperfect, yet always striving to be better.