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D'var Torah: Vayishev


So many of the events described in today’s parashah are ones of polar opposites that it’s hard not to assume that these contrasts were deliberate. So let’s explore some of the most obvious contrasts to try to see how they assist in developing the Joseph cycle, which is the longest narrative story in the Torah.

The first contrast is the favorite versus the outcast. As soon as the parashah begins, it immediately launches into this element: Jacob’s favoring of Joseph over all of his other sons. Joseph is favored, his brothers by implication are not. Not only is this a cause of family enmity and sibling rivalry, it sets the stage for all of the events that follow. Then, soon after Joseph became a slave of Potiphar, he became favored among the servants but he lost this favored position and became a prisoner when Mrs. Potiphar unjustly accused him of attempted rape. Even as a prisoner, Joseph becomes favored as the jailer’s assistant. The final favorite versus outcast pair involves the pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, of whom the former is restored and the latter executed.

The second polar opposite pairing involves status changes, with a fall from high status, a symbolic descent demonstrated by the imagery of the pit, the dungeon, and even the descent to Egypt. Joseph is thrown down into a pit and then is brought down to Egypt where he becomes a slave. He rises to become the head servant. Then he’s thrown into the dungeon. Again he rises, this time to become the jailer’s chief. And we know how his status will change again in the next parashah. Meanwhile, Jacob’s reveling in his favorite son’s presence turns to his descent into the depths of despair at the report of Joseph’s death. The inserted pericope of Judah and Tamar has its own set of status changes, beginning with Judah’s leaving his brothers and descending (even the Hebrew uses va’yered, “he descended”) to Adulam; the story continues with two of Judah’s sons dying and Tamar’s status descends from wife to levirate wife to widow to prostitute—and then rises to that of mother. The status changes of pharaoh’s courtiers can also be mentioned here.

The third example of a polar opposite pairing is also one of a status change, but this one is symbolic and involves clothing—its possession and loss. Consider: Jacob gives Joseph a princely garment, a token of Joseph’s high standing in the family. Joseph’s brothers strip him of the garment, symbolizing his loss of status; the garment is then used as evidence of Joseph’s death. Joseph again loses his garment at the hand of Mrs Potiphar, who strips it off him and uses it as evidence of Joseph’s improper behavior. Here the Hebrew word used for “garment” is beged, bet-gimel-dalet, and it’s used six times in the description of Joseph’s encounter with Mrs Potiphar. But beged, meaning “garment,” is not the basic meaning of this word. The root and verb bagad actually means “to deal treacherously or deceptively.” One’s garment can hide the true identity of a person, as we clearly see in the Judah-Tamar story.

We can only surmise why the Judah-Tamar story became intercalated into the Joseph story, but I’d suggest that the clothing-as-deception message may have been a powerful motive for doing so; Tamar changed her status between a widow and a ritual prostitute with a change of clothes and then used the items of clothing that she secured from Judah to prove that she was asserting her legal right to obtain an heir for her deceased husband. In this example she used clothing items that were elements of Judah’s identity: his robe tie, signet, and staff. So we see three cases in this parashah where clothing is used deceptively and a fourth case to assert a legal claim. The final use of a symbol, a scarlet thread on Tamar’s son Zerah’s wrist, illustrates yet another use of a symbol of status; in this case, one of the first born.

The final polar pairing I’ll mention is one of sexual relations and its avoidance. There are actually many instances of sexual pairings, both implicit and explicit, in Genesis up to this point. Consider the three episodes of the sister-wife stories involving Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah; also recall the incident where Lot offers his virgin daughters to Sodom’s townsmen to protect his visitors. And then there’s the rape of Dinah by Shechem. In each of these cases, a member of the patriarchal family becomes exposed to a sexual situation imposed by an external source. Our parashah has similar episodes too, occurring in both the Joseph story and in the Judah-Tamar story. Joseph faces an exact parallel in that he becomes exposed to a sexual situation not of his making, but he rejects the offered encounter. In the Judah-Tamar story the situations are not as clearly defined and are quite complex but are still present. Onan rejects the legal requirement for his levirate marriage to Tamar and Tamar must resort to a deceptive scheme to use her father-in-law to get an heir for her deceased husband.

We now can address the initial question: How do these contrasts help develop the Joseph story? Clearly the device of the favored and the unfavored person serves to enhance the listener’s anticipation as the events unfold and Joseph’s status builds and then collapses through external events. The theological background, however, is clearly evident as the text repeatedly states that God’s blessing was with Joseph, with the result that events seemed destined to produce a happy ending. God’s role in the Judah-Tamar story is also made very clear as soon as the story begins.

Like virtually all biblical stories, both the Joseph story and the Judah-Tamar story contain multiple motifs which all point to the same objective while using different literary devices to reinforce the story line. All these parallel story lines, which include the participants’ changes in status and the use of clothing symbolism, have the same purpose. Just like the pharaoh’s two dreams that we will read about next week, these two stories are essentially the same. Both advance their story objectives by manipulating the participants, using deception as well as external events, to explain the origins of the two kingdoms of the Israelites. The Joseph story will culminate in the birth of the primary ancestor of the northern kingdom, Joseph’s son Ephraim; Jeroboam, its first king, was his descendent. And the parallel story of Judah and Tamar culminates in the birth of Perez, from whom the Davidic dynasty of the southern kingdom of Judah arose.

And using these devices for storytelling? Powerful, realistic, and unforgettable. That was the intent, after all.


December 2012





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