Among the prominent themes of the Book of Genesis are sibling rivalry, the supplanting of the firstborn by a younger brother, and difficult family dynamics in general. The pattern is repeated with Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Esau and Jacob. In this week's parashah, Vayeshev, the focus is on Joseph the dreamer, who torments his brothers by recounting dreams and bearing tales. We read here of Joseph, the young man sold into slavery, who rises to be the most powerful official in the land of Egypt. However, along with this story, Parashat Vayeshev contains another thread of patriarchal family history that is both fascinating and informative. This is the story of Yehudah's maturation and growth to become the leader of his generation and ultimately the namesake of both the Southern Kingdom and the Jewish people.
In Vayeshev, we see Yehudah, the fourth of Jacob's twelve sons, vying with the firstborn, Reuven, for leadership. When the brothers are scheming to kill Joseph, Reuven suggests that Joseph be put into a pit, but it is Yehudah's plan to sell Joseph to the Midianites and report him killed to their father that ultimately prevails. It is as a result of this act of negative leadership along with several important subsequent positive acts that Yehudah comes to the forefront.
According to Jewish tradition, Yehudah is severely punished for the evil done to Joseph. In chapter 38 of Genesis, we read the story of Yehudah and Tamar, the Canaanite woman chosen by Yehudah to be the wife of his firstborn son, Er, whose life God soon takes. In order to continue the "seed" of Er, Yehudah tells his second son, Onan, to "join with your brother's wife." (Genesis 38:8) Because Onan refuses, he, too, dies. Having lost two of his three sons, Yehudah refuses to follow custom and law by providing Tamar with Shelah, the third of his sons. He deals deceitfully with Tamar and is ultimately tricked by her (she masquerades as a prostitute and lures Yehudah into unknowingly providing "seed" for the next generation). When Tamar becomes pregnant, Yehudah at first threatens to have her executed for infidelity. However, Tamar proves that it is Yehudah who has been unfaithful to the tradition and, as a result, he ultimately assumes full responsibility for his actions and their consequences. Accused by Tamar and faced with public humiliation both for his acts and his lack of faithfulness, Yehudah publicly repents, saying: "She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." (Genesis 38:26) According to Maimonides, the truest form of repentance occurs when someone has not only publicly confessed his or her sin and sought atonement but has subsequently found himself or herself in a similar situation and has refrained from sinning. In this regard, Yehudah is a patriarchal model for growth through repentance. His repentance after being confronted by Tamar is heartfelt. And his subsequent words and behavior make it clear that he has learned and grown as an individual. Subsequently, when he is negotiating with his father, Jacob, to allow him to take his brother Benjamin to Egypt, Yehudah (unlike Reuven) takes full responsibility for the safety of his brother:
Then Yehudah said to Yisrael his father: "Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die—you and we and our children. I myself will act as his pledge; at my hand you may seek him! If I do not bring him back to you and set him in your presence, I will be culpable-for-sin against you all the days [to come]." (Genesis 43:8-9)
Later, when Joseph's ruse of concealing the silver goblet seems to threaten his promised return of Benjamin, Yehudah, who knows to his core the pain of losing a child, steps forward to plead on behalf of his brother and the pain of his father. This moment marks Yehudah's emergence as a mature leader.
At the conclusion of the Book of Genesis, Jacob blesses his sons and designates Yehudah as the head of his generation:
You, O Yehudah, your brothers will praise;...
Your father's sons will bow low to you....
The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah....
Although Yehudah is frequently overlooked, his influence is formidable. The tribe of his descendants ultimately gives name to the Southern Kingdom of Judea. The people of Israel are commonly known as Jews. Yehudah, like the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is at once very human and every bit the hero. His heroism is expressed through his growth and development into a mature and responsible leader.
As of this writing in 1998, Rabbi Paul Z. Saiger was the regional director of the Hillels of Illinois in Chicago.
This week's Torah portion is filled with the nightmares of life: a parent's showing preference for one child over other children, sibling rivalry, hate that turns to silence, silence that ends in violence, lying, arrogance, and deception. It reads with enough intrigue to be a premise for a miniseries. Vayeshev is a portrait of estrangement on many levels. The parashah, in fact, is so disturbing that we may even feel estranged confronting it, moved to say something like "I can't believe this could really happen!"
Certainly, there are times in our lives when we realize that perhaps we have preferred one child over another, when we are estranged from a sibling, or when our silence harmed another. There are also times when we cannot help but feel that a loved one has treated us in a less than favorable manner. Perhaps our discomfort with this portion stems from the fact that it challenges us to look into our own hearts.
This disturbing portion bears a stark truth: No one goes through life unscathed. Many believe that some of what happens to us is a function of the randomness of life while some of life's losses are clearly the consequences of choices. Thus, an important question to consider is, How do we choose to live?
What would have happened if Jacob had kept his preference for Joseph to himself? What if Joseph had shared his dreams with a friend, not his brothers? If only Reuben had succeeded in saving his brother! This parashah leads us to focus on the parts of life filled with "What if?" and "If only...."
The choices made in Vayeshev lead to losses: the loss of parental love, the loss of healthy sibling relationships, the loss that comes when hearts are infected with hate, the loss of a child, the loss of freedom—losses that are all too common, losses that provoke feelings of sadness and anger.
None of us goes through life unscathed. How, then, should we choose to live? In a different Torah portion, Nitzavim, we read the verses: "I set before you today life and death, blessing and curse. [Therefore,] choose life." (Deuteronomy 30:19) In order to live with spiritual sensitivity, we must both recognize the choices we have and make choices that sustain and nourish life for ourselves and for others. We must make choices with the consequences in mind. We must be willing to recognize God's Presence in all our life circumstances. Perhaps that is why, even in the midst of profound loss, Tamar gives birth to twins. (Genesis 38:27-30) Perhaps that is why, even when Joseph was in prison in Egypt, "Adonai was with Joseph." (Genesis 39:21) Instead of randomness, all these moments emphasize God's enduring Presence amidst situations that seem hopeless.
As of this writing in 1998, Rabbi Eric Weiss worked at Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, CA.
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 208–232