Overcoming Jacob: Parashat Vayeshev


Parashat Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

The longest story of any of our early founding ancestors, the story of Joseph and his brothers, begins in this week’s Torah portion and continues to the very end of the book of Genesis. It is a very rich and complex story, with many parts. After Joseph is disposed of by the brothers, sold into slavery, conveyed down to Egypt, the Torah’s attention shifts to tell of an adventure – or mis-adventure – of Judah. (We have dealt with this story before. See Sparks for last year and for 2012.) This episode seems to be a tangential sub-plot. After telling this episode will the Torah return to Joseph’s story in earnest.

But the sale of Joseph and the Judah episode are not independent of each other. They can be seen to exist in contrast to each other. One is the story of Jacob’s apparent loss of his beloved son, Joseph. However, the Judah story presents a drama in which the real loss by Judah of not one, but two of his sons, leads to the birth of new life, of 2 grandsons. Jacob, mistakenly convinced that he has lost Joseph, is inconsolable in his grief. Judah, in his pursuit of consolation, mistakenly helps to create new sources of love and delight. He is brought to this by his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who refuses to follow Jacob’s emotional model, refusing to remain alone and inconsolable.

In refusing to passively suffer, Tamar refuses to follow the path chosen by the old, defeated Jacob. Instead she chooses to follow the path of the young, triumphant Jacob. She, too, uses deceit and subterfuge to try to wrest a blessing from her patriarch. Her efforts almost fail and she is almost killed in punishment. But she challenges Judah and her faith in his honesty is justified. Her stratagems work! Her dream of having children is answered twice over.

Indeed, in the birth of these twins Jacob is doubly displaced and superseded. As the two brothers struggle to be born, we recall the earlier scene of the birth of the two twin brothers, Esau and Jacob. Jacob got his name because he had tried to exit the birth canal first, seizing hold of Esau’s heel. He failed, however. Esau emerged as the first-born and Jacob had to fight for the birthright later. But this time, just as the first brother tried to emerge, he retreated and the second brother burst first ahead of him. He received the name Peretz – the One who bursts forth. Unlike Jacob, he succeeds in supplanting his brother at the very first moment of life. In these ways Tamar and her son, Peretz, overcome the failing Jacob.

And Jacob is overcome in one other way.  Jacob had pinned all his hopes in his son, Joseph. So he awards Joseph the wonderful colorful cloak that signified his special status. But his hopes were dashed. It is true that Joseph eventually did live on to become a temporary savior of his family. But all Jacob’s plans and hopes were as nothing compared to the ultimate result of Tamar’s desperate gamble and Peretz’ surprising natural audacity. It would be Peretz, not Joseph, who, in the end, would redeem Israel. For Peretz turned out to be the ancestor of King David, the Messiah – God’s anointed, the real source of Israel’s great hope.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

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image:  “Fight” © Alexandre Crozet altered and used with permission via Creative Commons License


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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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