Our Words and Our Deeds

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

D'Var Torah By: Erik L. F. Contzius

Joseph is allotted more text than any other person in the Bible, except for Moses. Yet immediately after he is introduced, we learn an unpleasant fact about him: "At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father's wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father." (Genesis 37:2) While it is clearly stated here that Joseph is a gossip, an allusion to Joseph's less-than-admirable quality of being a talebearer is made even earlier in Genesis: "While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel found out." (Genesis 35:22) Who else but Joseph was so close to Jacob (Israel) that he would dare to reveal such intimate information to him?

As the story of Joseph progresses, we learn that his brothers hate him. Yet the text clearly states that their antipathy is not a result of Joseph's talebearing. The conflict in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers is created not by the verbal but by the highly tangible gift given by the father to only one son: "Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him." (Genesis 37:3-4)

Joseph's brothers may already have been upset with him, but when they saw the concrete gift that clearly symbolized Jacob's greater love for Joseph than for them, their feelings toward Joseph changed from jealousy to hatred.

We, too, at times act the way Joseph's brothers did. When we are hurt by what others say, we tend to think of such statements as being less hurtful than if we had been struck physically. But it is not so much the tangible action that we find so hurtful. Rather, the tangible leads us to focus on an already-present anger and frustration. Joseph's brothers may have already felt hurt by Joseph's verbal actions, but they were finally set off by the tangible nature of their father's actions. Just as we are sensitive to how we may hurt others physically, we should be even more sensitive to how our speech may hurt others. But how many of us think before we speak? We must remember that our words can indeed affect how our actions are perceived.

As Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav said: "How can you ever say it was only talk so no harm was done? Were this true, then your prayers and your words of kindness would also be just a waste of breath."

As of this writing in 1999, Cantor Erik L. F. Contzius served Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, PA.

What You See is Not Always What You Get

Daver Acher By: Laura Bramson

Living in Los Angeles, I tend to see a great deal of visual deception, both amusing and disturbing. Looming over Sunset Boulevard are billboard images of people too thin, too airbrushed, too perfect to be real. I can only guess the ages of the celebrities I see in the supermarket by looking at their hands, not their faces. Even my sixth-grade students dye their hair blue!

In Parashat Vayeishev, Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, took many risks. Tired of waiting for the brother of her two dead husbands to marry her and provide her with offspring, she dresses as a harlot and seduces her unknowing father-in-law, Judah. (Genesis 38:14-19) Full of detail and intrigue, the story contains one of the Bible's many "necessary deceptions," more specifically, the deception of a man by a woman who wants to produce a descendant. Through various twists and turns, Tamar moves toward and away from Judah in a strange, deceptive, and ultimately productive and triumphant power struggle.

Despite the unusual events and behaviors of the various characters, everyone goes home happy in this self-contained story. In dressing up as a harlot, Tamar fulfills her personal and communal childbearing responsibilities; Judah is granted the descendants who will continue his lineage; and the House of Israel and eventually that of David are secured. Tamar's actions force Judah to examine both his imperfect humanity and his vulnerability. In order to be a leader of the Jewish people, he must come to terms with those aspects of his personality. He must see how easily he could go from being powerful to being powerless, from being a trickster to being tricked.

Most people in our day would probably not support Tamar's course of action. We would suggest that she consult a professional about her feelings of betrayal or consider artificial insemination. But Tamar was a strong and determined woman who undertook the risks that were necessary to insure the survival of her people. Although she was not perfect, her choice turned out to be the right one.

All of us make choices about what we wish to hide from and what we allow ourselves to reveal to those around us. Whether it is by means of clothing and makeup or by keeping our true selves hidden, what we present to the world is not always the whole picture. Sometimes our actions are justified, as Tamar teaches us. Sometimes they are harmless, like when our sixth-grade students dye their hair blue. May God give us the strength to understand the lessons of Tamar and of Los Angeles - the importance of showing our true selves, imperfect though they may be.

[Sections of this article were taken from "She Is More In-The-Right Than I: Power Struggle, Necessary Deception and Female Triumph in Genesis 38:1-30," a biblical exegesis I wrote as a graduate student at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education.]

As of this writing in 1999, Laura Bramson was the religious school principal at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA.

Reference Materials

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