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Vayeshev (and he settled)

Genesis 37:1 to 40:23, Amos 2:6 to 3:8


In verse 35:1, Ya'akov was told by God to dwell in Beit-El. After Ya'akov helps Esav bury their father, we do not read of Ya'akov moving to Hevron. Instead we read of Esav's relocating and establishing descendants. The implication is that Ya'akov returned to Beit-El as God has instructed. At the start of this Parasha, it is less than 17 years later (known through Yosef's age) and Ya'akov as inexplicably moved to Hevron.

Ya'akov's major iniquity issue—trying to get what others had—was removed by God in Beit-El when God changed Ya'akov's name to Yisrael. But the disobedience of relocating to Hevron allows something less dramatically bad than covetousness to wreck the family: Ya'akov displays the parental favoritism that he inherited from his father and grandfather. Even when God has transformed our lives, we must be wary that "small things" do not cause troubles. (With all the trouble the patriarchs had because of parental favoritism, it seems wondrous it was not included in the Ten Commandments!)

When is Ya'akov called Yisrael? In the previous Parasha, the name Yisrael is applied to him when the name-change is prophesied (32:28), when it happens (35:10), and immediately afterwards (35:21-22), as well as in three anachronistic phrases (32:32, 34:7, 36:31). After the name-change happens, the name Jacob is still used by the narrator when dealing with consequences of past actions: making a pillar, burying Rachel, listing all his sons, visiting Yitzchak before he dies, and with Esav burying Yitzchak and dividing territory. In this Parasha, the name Yisrael is used when he has Yosef and is content (37:3, 13). When he again wants something he forfeits the name Yisrael in the mind of the narrator and is again called Ya'akov (wanting his father's place in 37:1-2, wanting Yosef in 37:34).

Note verse 37:11, where Yosef's brothers get more jealous but Yaakov "guards" (shamar) the word/thing. Yaakov acts much like Yeshua's mother in Luke 2:19 --skeptical but trusting.

Verse 37:35 tells us Yaakov had more than one daughter.

Tamar is erroneously called a hakadoshah (set apart woman = temple prostitute); but really neither she nor her place is set apart. In contrast, Yosef lives uprightly as if he is set apart for God, and God honors this devotion by setting apart both Yosef and his place.

Yosef is who Rabbinical Judaism uses to exemplify suffering in following God's plans. Traditional Rabbinical writings discuss two messiahs, a reigning "Son of David" (the warrior-king) and a suffering "Son of Yosef". Yosef's life did have many events that Yeshua's life parallels:

Philip Yancey, in The Bible that Jesus Read, writes about Job in a way that applys equally to Yosef:

Now I realize that what many readers do to the book of Job is a paradigm of what we do to life in general. We take a story about a battleground of faith and testing and turn it into a story about suffering.

At root, Job faced a crisis of faith, not of suffering. And so do we. All of us at times find ourselves in a Job-like state...

At such time we focus too easily on circumstances--illness, our looks, poverty, bad luck--as the enemy. We pray for God to change those circumstances. If only...then I could easily believe in God. Job teaches, though, that we need faith most at the precise moment when it seems impossible.

When tragedy strikes, we too will be trapped in a limited point of view...Job was being exalted, not spurned. God was letting his own reputation ride on the response of a single human being. At the time when Job felt most abandoned, at that very time God was giving him personal, almost microscopic scrutiny. God seemed absent; in one sense God had never been more present...Job convinces me that God cares more about our faith than our pleasure.

Why is the story of Yosef's descent into Egypt and slavery interrupted by an account of Yehudah and Tamar? Reuven, as the oldest son and one who has slept with his father's concubine, was naturally prominent among his brothers in both leadership and lustfulness. Now Yehudah takes on both of these reputations. He thinks up the idea of selling Yosef and deceiving their father, and is in turn himself deceived by Tamar. He (not Reuven) will later take the lead in bargaining with Yosef; but whereas Yosef resists the advances of Potiphar's wife, Yehudah is seduced by merely encountering a woman who appears to be a prostitute. Much later, the book of Ruth tells us Perez is an ancestor of King David (and Solomon)—the roots of great rulers with lust as a weakness are established ten generations prior to King David! The story of Yosef rising to authority over his brothers is interrupted by an account foreshadowing how Yisrael's greatest kings (David, Solomon, Yehsua) will come from Yehudah, not Yosef. This emphasizes that Yosef's rise to leadership foreshadows a single future event, not a characteristic of his future tribe.

Yosef speaks ill of some of his brothers in verse 37:2. A better way of correcting problems of which you have first-hand knowledge is described in Matthew 18:15-17.

In verse 37:34, Ya'akov rends his garments while mourning. This act is so well established that today even very non-Orthodox Jews will wear a bit of ripped cloth at a close relative's funeral to commemorate this ancient custom. Ariel ben Lyman comments that when Yeshua died the Temple's curtain was ripped, and that besides symbolically showing an end to the division between mankind and the Holy of Holies that ripping would have been in the eyes of contemporary Jews confirmation of Yeshua's claims that he was the son (i.e., a close relative) of (a now mourning) God.

Traditional Jewish Commentary

Jeffrey Feinberg summarizes the many examples of "reaping what you have sown" in this Parasha, which commentators have long discussed:

In verse 37:1 Ya'akov tries to "settle": to retire and live at ease. This is a contrast to Yitzchak whom that same verse calls a "sojourner" even in old age. Ya'akov Farber notes this, and how Matthew 6:19-21 instructs us not to aim for years of retirement and ease since Servants of God have a "retirement plan" of a different sort (according to 1st Corinthians 2:9, which quotes Isaiah 64:4).

Yosef "brought" an honest deebat ("bad report") in verse 37:2. In contrast, the spies of Numbers 13:32 "took out" a deebat; the change of verb shows that the spies were lying and had to fabricate a bad report.

Note the heenayneey in 37:13 when Yosef is humbly obedient to Ya'akov. And note the baal ha'chaomot (lord of dreams) in 37:19 when Yosef is mocked as being proud. Yosef was not acting proudly, but his brothers had other reasons to take issue with his words. Indeed, they "could not speak peacefully to him" in verse 37:4. Instead of considering the dreams as laughable, the importance of the dreams was magnified in their minds until it became an excuse to kill Yosef.

In verse 37:32, we read how the eleven brothers are too ashamed to confront Ya'akov directly. They "send" a messenger with the bloody coat, who brings it before Ya'akov and asks as a messenger would, "Is the the coat of your son?".

Michael Graetz interprets the "they" of "they pulled Yosef up out of the pit" (verse 37:28) as the Midyanite traders, not the eleven brothers. Thus Reuven's plea of "let not our hands be on him" (37:22) would be more literally fulfilled (i.e., the brothers put Yosef in the pit, but neither took him from it nor sold him, since the Midyanites did those acts).

In the last parashot Canaanite blood enters Abraham's family through Esav's son. Now, in Gen 38, it happens through Yaakov's son Yhudah. The Canaanite woman is unnamed. Yhudah has 3 sons by her. The first is so wicked God kills him! (38:7). Same with the second (38:10). Yhudah's lie (38:14,26) meant instead of one remaining male there becomes three (38:27-30).

Tamar asks for Yehudah's signet ring, "cord", and staff. The "cord" could be a bracelet, but tradition interprets it as referring to either tzit-tzit or the historical antecedent of tzit-tzit; thus Tamar acquired a ring and the makings of a chupah, hinting that she viewed the act as marriage and not adultery. Chizkuni adds that since neither of her husbands had been willing to have sexual relations with her, by the laws of that time Yehudah could have married her. He did not, as verse 38:26 makes clear.

Neil Gillman notes the word nakar ("recognize") is a theme of the Yehudah-Tamar story. In verse 37:32-33, a messenger asks if Ya'akov recognizes Yosef's blood-stained coat, and he does. In verse 38:25-26, Yehudah is asked to recognize his ring, cord, and staff, and he does.

What does it mean that "Adonai was with Yosef" (39:2, 21)? Clearly not that good things were happening to Yosef, or that Yosef was experiencing God in an unusually intimate manner. Rabbi Huna conjectured that Yosef whispered the name of God continually, nurturing his own sense of fellowship with God. Rashi conjectured that Yosef spoke publicly about God, witnessing loyally for a God who did not appear to be caring for him. Either of these interpretations allow the teaching that Yosef had learned from his lashon harah (speaking evil of others) in verse 37:2, had repented, and had changed the habits of his mouth.

Note what the dream interpretation allows: the other patriarchs did things for God but Yosef can also do things with God.

Efraim Levine comments that the nearly similar dreams of the Pharoah's two servants are most different in whether the dreamer is active or passive. Yosef's two dreams were similarly distinct. Thus Yosef was given an explanation for why his prophecy could be delayed: unlike Pharoah he did not have a "double dream" that signifies imminent fullfillment.

Yehuda Katz comments that Yosef sets an example of how even the poor or lowly can be charitable. Also, the cupbearer not only forgets Yosef but fails to give God credit or glory.

Rashi comments that verse 39:6 has Yosef beautiful: he was not behaving as someone with a grieving father should act. Rashi also interpreted "he was a lad" in verse 37:2 to refer to the childish behavior of primping and preening despite being a seventeen-year-old shepherd. Thus the tradgedy of Potiphar's wife is seen by Rashi as something Yosef set himself up for (rather than a bad thing that happened to a good person).

The rabbis were troubled by the fact that Yosef was not executed by the Egyptians, if thought guilty of attempted rape. Their solution to the problem was to speculate that at the trial it was noted that his clothing, not hers, was torn, thus showing who was truly at fault. But the Egyptian judges did not wish to either punish a prominent woman or execute an innocent man, so they put Yosef in prison.

Why did Yosef interpret the baker's dream negatively? The dream was of birds eating from baskets on the baker's head. The birds should have been afraid to approach the baskets. Thus Yosef realized that the baker, in his dream, was a corpse.