November 2018, Parshat Vayeshev

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, is one of the most fascinating portions in the Torah. The stories told make Netflix original productions hardly original and certainly more contained.

It begins with a dramatic episode in a story of the ultimate dysfunctional family, the first fully Jewish family. The scene was set in previous weeks when we learn that Yaakov was a romantic who fell in love with Rachel literally at first sight whereupon he kisses her before even talking to her. Luckily the Torah predates #metoo movement by about 3500 years.

In that world it also made sense that to win a girl over you must pay the father a tidy sum in this case, seven years of hard labour. At the end of the labour of love, Yaakov has a wedding to celebrate, was obviously a little intoxicated because he did not realise he was sleeping with Leah rather than the love of his life. For that to happen he worked another seven years, a true romantic.

Yaakov was now married to two sisters and their handmaidens as part of the package. His only real love was Rachel. But Rachel was barren whilst Leah was popping them out like no tomorrow, thinking Yaakov will eventually come to love her. Not only did that not happen, to make matters worse Rachel eventually had two of her own children. The favourite wife now had favourite children. And just so you know that Torah is not necessarily about happy endings, Rachel dies at the birth of the second.

The stage is now set for this week’s drama. Yosef being the favourite son of the favourite wife gets under the skin of his brothers. He constantly recounts his non-too-subtle dreams which depicts him as master of the universe and them his subordinates bowing to him. As a reminder of the fact that we are in the midst of the Early Bronze Age, rather than going to family therapy they decided to kill him. Only because Yehuda argued that they had more to gain selling him into slavery was Yosef sold to the first caravan of Arabs passing their way rather than being killed.

The brothers then concocted a story about a wild animal attacking him and even went to the great effort of spilling blood on his tunic to back up their story. Yaakov was understandably grief-stricken and we are told, surprise surprise, try as they might they could not comfort him. Really the cherry on the cake in terms of their inhumanity. I mean imagine consoling the father of your murder victim let alone the fact that the victim was your brother and the father is yours too.

From conspiracy to murder and supremely twisted family dynamics, the next scene is all about sex. Yehuda marries a woman and has three kids. The first one got married to Tamar but God didn’t like him much so he was killed. Since he didn’t have children the law mandated that his brother should marry her and set up a family in his brother’s memory. But the brother, Onan, was the selfish type and so made sure to spill his seed on the ground. God didn’t like that much either so killed him off too. Yehuda worried for the safety of his third child told Tamar to wait until the lad matured before they can be married.

But he grew up and was being withheld. So Tamar took matters into her own hands. She masqueraded as a prostitute and set Yehuda up. Apparently her figure was sufficient because he fell for it. And she got pregnant.
Of course as Yehuda was super self-righteous, as soon as news reached him of her pregnancy he ruled that her infidelity is deserving the death penalty by burning no less. Only at the last minute when she showed him his personal items he left with her as a payment guarantee for her cash-only service, did she get a reprieve. Though the text says that Yehuda did not sleep with her again, according to one interpretation brought by Rashi, what it means is that he did not cease sleeping with her. Steamy stuff. And just for the record, the Davidic dynasty and Mashiach himself all are descendent from this stormy situation.

We then pick up the story with Yosef being sold in Egypt to Potifar, a big macher in Pharaoh’s court. Yosef was supremely successful and so he was put in charge of his master’s entire estate. Enter Desperate Housewives of Ancient Egypt. Potifar had a wife infatuated with Yosef whom we are told is really hot. She tries to seduce him day in day out but Yosef maintains his integrity arguing it would be a huge breach of his master’s trust. Finally, she tries to rape him by grabbing his clothes whereupon he slips out of them and runs outside.

When she realised her predicament, she turned it on him saying that he tried to force himself on her and only when she screamed did he run away leaving his clothes behind. Poor Yosef then gets thrown in the dungeon which sets up the last scene.

In the dungeon are two others, the butler and the baker of Pharaoh himself. They each have a dream one night which leaves them very agitated the next morning. Yosef who himself was a dreamer coaxed them into sharing. The butler relents and shares his dream:

“In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

Yosef then said to him, “This is its interpretation: The three branches are three days. In three days Pharaoh will pardon you and restore you to your post; you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your custom formerly when you were his cupbearer.”

When the baker saw how favourably he had interpreted, he said to Yosef, “In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head. In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head.”

Whereupon Yosef answered, “This is its interpretation: The three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will chop off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.”


Needless to say it all transpired as Yosef predicted and sets the stage for Yosef’s meteoric rise to power in next week’s parsha.

What to make of all this? In the words of Kyle Brofloski from South Park – what important lessons have we learnt here today?

I can think of many. Multiple wives not a great idea. Favouritism leads to disaster. We are descended from fearful men. Dream-interpreters are the devilish type – they wait for you to get sucked in with a positive interpretation and shower you with disaster when least expected. And extremely prudish attitudes to sex, rampant amongst the faithful, is a much more recent phenomenon.

Then there are those who learn other lessons. From Onan some learn that masturbation is a crime against humanity. And from Yosef’s dreams which include the heavenly spheres as opposed to the Egyptians’ dreams which only talk of mundane elements there are those who deduce that Jews are inherently superior.
From my point of view though there is really one over-arching lesson to learn from this week’s Parsha. Put simply, as Yosef shows, it is all a matter of interpretation. The worthiness of one interpretation or another should be evaluated first and foremost by what it directs us to think, feel, and act. It follows then that interpretation concluding Jewish superiority is as morally corrupt as it inherently nonsensical based on the text itself. Likewise, demonising a natural part of maturation is the wrong lesson to be learnt from Onan. It’s extremely unhealthy, superimposed, and totally misses the point of the story. What we ought to learn from Onan is that extreme selfishness is a crime rather than generating neuroses for vulnerable teenagers.

And thank God we live in the 21st century!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur