Vayeshev – oh for the quite life

This week’s parsha begins by saying that Jacob settled down quietly in the land of Canaan. But Rashi comments that righteous people don’t have a quiet life, in this world. They have important jobs to do, and shouldn’t think too soon of retiring. We see the continuing story of disharmony caused by Jacob having multiple wives and favourite children. (Gazan-born Noni Darwish writes very well on the topic of polygamy and how it causes unhappiness in families – see ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment’ pp 95-100.) One commentary says that Joseph’s coat of coloured stripes (kutonet passim) was historically given to the son who ruled over the others. So even without his dreams of ruling over them, his coat infuriated his brothers. When they attacked him, they first took off his coat, and later they covered it with goat blood to convince their father of his death. When Jacob mourns for Joseph, he cannot be comforted. Commentaries say this is because he was partly hoping that Joseph was not dead after all. Interestingly, Jacob (prompted by mum Rebecca) had tricked his father with cooked goat meat and goat skin to feel like hairy Esau.

Judah becomes the leader of the brothers, although firstborn Reuben stops them from killing Joseph. Judah listens to Reuben, but later when Reuben leaves, he convinces the brothers to sell Joseph. Later, Judah is punished when his first two sons are killed by G-d, and then he keeps his third son from marrying the childless Tamar, the same daughter-in-law. She exchanges her widow’s clothes for a prostitute’s outfit, and then gets back into her widow’s clothes, after she has enticed Judah into sleeping with her, to fulfil her obligation of having a child in a ‘levirate’ marriage. This law of ‘yibum’ is seen later in the story of Ruth. Once again, parallels in Tanach make a fascinating study. Apart from the repetition of the disguise motif, the goat makes another appearance, this time as the price of the sexual transaction, but is never delivered. Instead, Tamar takes Judah’s signet ring and other objects as collateral. When her pregnancy becomes known, she is able to save herself by producing these objects. Judah’s public confession that he is indeed the father is considered very honourable.

Joseph is punished for his earlier arrogance by becoming a slave in Egypt. But he is immensely successful, until his boss Potiphar’s wife takes a fancy to him. This classically modern tale of sexual harassment goes on until she gets him alone, and he rushes outside, leaving his jacket (beged) in her hand. Again Joseph is in trouble because of his outer garments. But he gets good press from the rabbis for resisting temptation, and is now called “Joseph the Tzaddik”. Thus the Torah makes a strong statement in story form against adultery. Potiphar’s wife then saves face through a classic case of made-up slander using what looks like evidence. Many journalists of today, as well as the Takiya brigade, would be very proud of her. Pretending to believe her, Potiphar throws Joseph once more into a pit, where he awaits release. Joseph gives credit to G-d when solving the dreams of the butler and baker, and at the end of the parsha he still awaits deliverance.

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