Vayeshev

Near the end of last week’s narrative[1], Jacob purchases a homestead and builds a home in 33:17. Therefore, the parashah begins with an interesting dichotomy: And he, Jacob that is, settled in the land of his father sojourning, in the land of Canaan[2]. Isaac sojourned while Jacob dwelled. Jacob purchased land and remained in Canaan because this was the land of promise – the land of his birthright. Like his grandfather, Jacob believed fully in this promise and purchased land to solidify his family’s claim on the land. In this land, near the city of Shechem, the family raised flocks and had children. Therefore, the text continues with a common phrase: These are the toledot[3] of Jacob. The term toledot, when in reference to an individual, always provides us a glimpse of those who come after. For instance, “These are the toledot of the heavens and the Earth.” The focus no longer is on the Heavens and the Earth, but on the creatures that came from them: Adam and Chavah [or Adam and Eve]. In most cases, toledot shifts the focus from parent to progeny, but this is not always the case. For instance, Genesis 6:9 says “These are the generations [toledot] of Noach,” but the focus does not change from Noach to his children. In fact, the focus of the Biblical narrative is never on his children; Noach’s importance and righteousness is so much greater than his children, we are simply provided a nine-generation list of descendants until we reach a man named Terach, who is the father of Abraham. This Terach is the first man to be called out of the land of Ur to inherit the land – we see this in Genesis 11:31 where the text says, “And Terach took Abram his son, Lot the son of Haran his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law [his son Abram’s wife] and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan.” However, he’s unable to finish the task for an unknown reason and he dies on the way, and the promise passes to Abram his son.

In our story, we immediately focus on a 17-year-old young man, Joseph or Yosef, who’s MO [Method of Operation] is to feed the flocks with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah and to report to his father everything that happens.

If you will allow me, I would like to digress and talk about Bilhah. Lavan gave Bilhah to Rachel as a handmaiden when she married Jacob, and Jacob eventually fathered children through her. According to Midrash Rabbah[4] 98:4, the Babylonian Talmud[5] Shabbat 55b, and Pseudo-Jonathan Genesis[6] 35:22, Jacob moved his normal sleeping couch from his deceased wife’s tent to the tent of Bilhah. Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob and Leah, felt this was an affront to his mother, the first wife of Jacob, and he put the couch into his mother’s tent where he believed it rightly should be placed. This event distressed his father because no man should ever enter the tent of a woman unless he was married to her – to do so if as if he laid with the woman. Therefore the Biblical text says, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard.”

As a matter of logic, had Reuben slept with his father’s wife, he would be not only breaking Torah, but also the customs and laws of his family, and he would be subject to either death or banishment. However, the very next pasuch[7] says, “The sons of Jacob were twelve: The Sons of Leah: Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, etc.” Had Reuben been banished or executed for a crime as heinous as adultery, his name would forever be marked by something similar to “Reuben, the son who defiled his father’s wife.”

Being a snitch, nark, blatherskite, tattler, stool pigeon, windjammer, a tattletale… these are very effective way to destroy personal relationships, even when the tale-bearing is meant to serve the best possible result. Joseph’s brothers, like any of us, were a tad irritated in having their comings and goings broadcasted to their father. This, however, was only the icing on the hate cake. Reuben, because of the event with Bilhah, lost the title and privileges of the behor[8]. Therefore, another source of ire is that Jacob chose another firstborn son, the son of Rachel, to inherit the rights of the firstborn and the woolen garment was used to announce the status. Is it safe to assume, then, Reuben once owned a fine woolen garment prior to his fall? I think so. The brothers seem to have a problem, for there are other candidates for the position who were born before Joseph. For instance, Judah was not part of the Shechem murders so he was not disqualified. Both Dan and Gad were firstborn sons, so why were they not considered? Additionally, Naphtali, Asher, Issachar, and Zebulun all were born before Joseph. Even though Joseph was the firstborn son of his second wife, he was still 11th in the birth order. The Torah makes a special statute regarding a polygamous marriage: The father is not to give precedence to the firstborn of the favored wife if the lesser wife gives a son first[9]. Therefore, it appears that Joseph was given the position unfairly.

Jacob’s Children in Birth Order [with mother]. The firstborn are bolded.
Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah
Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali
Zilpah: Gad, Asher
Leah: Issachar, Zebulun
Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin

 In verse 37:3, the text tells us that Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved any other son. If we stopped reading right there, we know Joseph has the status of Firstborn in the family, but the text gives us another clue for our conclusion: The fine woolen tunic that ran down to the soles of his feet was given to Joseph. With this article of clothing, the deal was set in stone: The mantle of the family was to go from Jacob to Joseph. The other boys were never able to speak kindly to him or about him again; their hatred for him steeled their hearts against him.

Joseph kept throwing the kerosene on the flames. When he had his first dream, he insisted upon telling his brothers what he saw. The boys fully understood the concept, asking two rhetorical questions:

[a] “Would you then reign over us?” A king must have the permission of his subjects to reign. “Are we going to willingly bow to you as servants?”
[b] “Would you then dominate us?” Are you going to force us to bow against our will as a slave master?

To answer these questions require another look at the dream: The text tells us that Joseph’s sheaf rose and stood erect. At some time later, the sheaves of the brothers gathered around and bowed on their own.

Joseph’s second dream he related twice: once to his brothers, and once to his father in his brother’s presence. In order to help ease the tensions between Joseph and the rest of the family, Jacob scolded Joseph and brought up a very valid point: How can the sun and moon that represents me and Rachel your mother possibly come true when she died shortly after Benjamin’s birth? However, Jacob kept this dream the matter in mind because Bilhah serves as Rachel’s handmaiden and cared for Rachel’s’ children upon her death. Therefore, the moon must represent Bilhah; if true, then we know Bilhah traveled down to Egypt with the family, which we will read in two weeks in Parashah Vayigash[10].

Joseph’s dream involving the sun, moon, and stars opened a philosophical debate as to which of these creations of G-d is more important. The sages of Chelm had their own way of solving this question.
A resident of Chelm as the Rabbi, “Which is more important, the sun or the moon?”
“What a silly question.” The Rabbi was angry that someone would ask such a dumb question. “The moon is most important, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. Who needs the sun to shine when it’s broad daylight[11]?”

The 10 brothers were caring for the flocks near Shechem when Jacob asked Joseph to run down and inquire upon their welfare. Joseph, upon hearing his father’s “go now[12],” left Hevron and he arrived in Shechem. However, once there, he wandered about looking around until a man found him wandering about as lost. This man pointed Joseph in the direction of his brothers.

As the brothers see his approach, the plan begins to brew. “Look, here comes the dreamer. Let’s kill him, hide his body in a pit, and claim a wild beast killed and devoured his body. Then we shall see what will become of his dreams[13].”

I found an interesting perspective in the Midrash: I will not quote it for brevity’s sake, but in it, Reuben declares to himself that he owes Joseph a debt of gratitude because in his second dream, Joseph included him among the brothers, counting him as an equal among the 11 stars. This confirmed to Reuven that he was not banished from his father’s presence and would still be considered for an inheritance among his brothers.

As the plot to kill Joseph builds, Reuben defuses the situation [actually the text says, “and he rescued him from their hand”]. Judah, upon seeing a caravan of Ishmaelite traders during their evening meal, says that they can not only rid themselves of their Joseph problem, but they can also profit. “Let’s sell him,” he says. The sale was made and [as the writings of Rav Bachya states] the boys collected 20 silver denarim or five silver shekels. This is a profit of two denarim per brother for the sale of a firstborn son, which is equal to a half shekel. In the Jerusalem Talmud [tractate Shekalim 2:3, actually], the rabbis notice that the Jewish people are forever commanded to redeem firstborn sons for five shekels [or 20 denarim], and must provide a half-shekel gift to the Temple yearly. In the case when the Temple Service is not functioning, the half shekel is gifted during the Purim season, which is the time the half-shekel Temple contribution was made.

I sympathize with Jacob’s reaction. The loss of a child is a terrible event, and his bitter sorrow is understandable. What’s interesting is verse 37:34-35. This verse again proves the Torah is not concerned with presenting events in a chronological order. In this passage, Jacob’s father, Isaac, weeps for his son. The way we know that the phrase, “And his father wept for him” does not speak of Jacob is because in the previous verse [v. 34], the text says, “And Jacob… mourned for his son many days.” The Biblical text is never redundant, otherwise this prophesy is a lie: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and returns not there, but waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me void[14].”

Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites, but the Torah also mentions the Midianites, the Medenites, and Potifar as owners. During this time, he experiences for down of being a slave, but in the cases where he spends time with his captors, he is elevated to a leadership position that helped sweeten his captivity a bit. The exception is from the point of his initial purchase in Dotan to the final sale in Egypt between the Medenites and Potifar.

A Roman matron asked Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, “In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be he, create his world?”
He said to her, “In six days.”
She said to him, “What has he been doing since that time?”
He said to her, “The Holy One, blessed be he, is sitting, and making ladders. He raises this man and lowers that; he humbles this man and enriches that[15].”

In the Biblical narrative, we see Joseph experiencing the ladders of Hashem, in a figurative sense, of course. He is lowered into the pit, sold as a slave, and thrown into a prison. In like manner, he is elevated to head of a household, the chief assistant to the prison keeper, and eventually to a position of authority under the Pharaoh [which will be read next week in Parashah Mikeitz[16]].

Every day man is sold and every day redeemed. Every day man’s spirit is taken from him and given to the keeper, and is returned to him in the morning. Every day miracles are worked for him as for those who went out of Egypt. Every day, redemption is worked for him, as for those who went out of Egypt. Every day he is fed on the breasts of his mother. Every day he is chastised for his deeds like a child by his teacher[17].

The weekly readings end with a passage from the prophet Amos. Just as our ancestors sold Joseph into bondage and slavery, so too will we be punished and exiled, even though we bring sacrifices and celebrate the Moadim. The reason for this punishment, according to Amos 2:4, is because we sold the righteous and the poor for silver and a pair of shoes. Interestingly, the Rabbis in Tanchuma Vayeshev 2, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 292-293, and the Testament of Zebulun 3:2 all say the boys spend the money of the sale on sandals in order to be able to walk upon Joseph since he indicated he would be their leader and they would bow down before him. This was seen as a just punishment for his arrogance. The prophet Amos reminds us that while it’s important to be diligent and dutiful to G-d, we must also be dutiful toward our fellow man. I hope that you and I have time to learn from the mistakes of our fathers and care for not only our Creator, but also our fellow man, be they Jew or Gentile.


[1] Last week I said the Hammer on the Rock was a quote from Ramban. I was wrong. Ramban was quoting from b.Sanhedrin 34a, which in turn quoted Jeremiah 23:29
[2] Artscroll Chumash, page 199
[3] Toledot: Heb. Generations, or Chronicles
[4] Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of parables based upon the Biblical text, specifically the Torah [Genesis through Deuteronomy] and the Megillot [the books of Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, lamentation, and Ecclesiastes]. Interestingly, all these books are often viewed as the least important of all the Biblical texts by most Christian commentators.
[5] The Babylonian Talmud is viewed as the most important Jewish commentary on the Older Testament. The Jerusalem Talmud, which is a lesser-known and lesser-studied commentary, is most often viewed as authoritative when a discrepancy between the two exists. If you buy the Artscroll Schottenstein Edition, it takes 10 linear feet of shelf space.
[6] Pseudo-Jonathan is a very early Targum… an Aramaic translation of the Torah that often inserts additional background information into the Biblical text to preserve more of the authoritative traditions behind the text.
[7] Pasuch: Heb. Verse
[8] Behor: Heb. Firstborn
[9] Deuteronomy 21:15-16: If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first-born son be hers that was hated; then it shall be, in the day that he causes his sons to inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born before the son of the hated, who is the first-born.
[10] Parashah Vayigash: Heb. And he approached
[11] For those who would like to read eight Hanukkah stories based upon the citizens of Chelm, see the book “The Jar of Fools” by Eric Kimmel and Mordicai Gerstein.
[12] Genesis 37:14
[13] Genesis 37:19-20
[14] Isaiah 55:10-11
[15] Pesikta Rabbati 74b, a Midrash compilation
[16] Parashah Mikeitz: Heb. “At the end”
[17] Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 11b-12a. Martin Luther, when asked a similar question said, “G-d cuts whips for those who ask foolish questions

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