This portion can be read as the first of the Joseph stories or the culmination of the sibling rivalry that has plagued the families of Genesis. But taking a perspective that joins the dreams of Joseph to the story of Tamar, we can read this as a portion about free will, foreknowledge, and responsibility.
We first meet Joseph not as one who interprets dreams of others, but as one who has dreams of his own. The question that the story raises for us—and to some extent for his father, Jacob—is whether Joseph’s dreams represent his personal ambitions or should be seen as a thin parting of the veil that hides most of us from the greater drama of which we are a part.
Sigmund Freud was fascinated with the biblical Joseph. “It will be noticed that the name Joseph plays a great part in my dreams. My own ego finds it very easy to hide itself behind people of that name, since Joseph was the name of a man famous in the Bible as an interpreter of dreams” (Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition , vol. V, p. 484n). Freud expanded our understanding of dreams, yet he was restricted to viewing dreams only within the context of the empirical world and the world of emotions. He rejected the view that dreams were chiefly concerned with the future and an ability to fortell it—something he dismisses as “a remnant of the old prophetic significance of dreams” (ibid., vol. IV, p. 97). His metaphysics, while enriching our view of our own minds, has constricted our view of reality. He does not consider that we may have access to a larger vision transcending our personal wishes and desires.
Jewish tradition informed Freud in his eagerness to preserve our sense of responsibility and free will. In biblical times, divination of any sort already was frowned upon. However, there is a third concept that lies between the concepts of free will and determinism—that of destiny. Free will suggests that we and the other forces in this world are the sole determinants of both the meaning and the value of our actions. Determinism suggests that what “is” could not have been otherwise, that is, we are simply living in a prescripted drama. Destiny functions very differently: it neither controls us nor ignores us. Rather, it invites us to live a life beyond the narrow concept of self-interest.
A cell in your bloodstream could live out its life span delivering oxygen and taking away waste. But if it could become conscious, it could become aware of the larger whole, your body, of which it is a part. Similarly, we can live our lives doing what we do, never reflecting on any larger whole in which we might be participating. But if the veil were lifted, as it was for Joseph and Tamar, our lives would be imbued with meaning and dignity. We are not coerced or tricked into reflecting on our destiny, rather, we are invited. And with this invitation comes the possibility of moving from an “accidental” life to one that is in harmony with the goodness of the original creation.
In this portion, we meet Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah and exemplary foremother of Reform Judaism. With clarity of moral vision and at great personal risk, she seduces Judah and becomes the foremother of the line of David (and the Messiah). She, too, had a dream, and she performed the action that made it a reality.
The story of Judah and Tamar is inserted at this point in the narrative to justify our becoming the Jewish people instead of Reubenites. Judah, shown identifying signet-seal, staff, and cord by his daughter-in-law, recognizes his error, changes course, and thereby becomes a fit leader for the Jewish people. We are not asked to be perfect, but to fulfill our destiny; we must be able to admit our mistakes and change course.
Potiphar’s wife is introduced not merely to tempt and thereby test Joseph nor to be the proximate cause of his being thrown into the dungeon. She also serves to exemplify a person who cannot see beyond her own immediate desires. Joseph is not a moral exemplar for her but a temptation. Once Joseph has recognized his own destiny, he easily could have said to Potiphar’s wife what he later says to his brothers, “Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people” (Genesis 50:20).
As Reform Jews we are taught to take responsibility for our choices and actions. We are guided by tradition, but not excused by it. We must perform the right action even when there is no precedent for our choice.
Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
In her commentary on this week’s parashah , Rabbi Ochs suggests that destiny often compels us to act in a larger context than that of our immediate selves. We recall the story of Rabbi Zusya, who said on his deathbed, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim [New York: Schocken Books, 1991], p. 251). Tradition encourages us to live up to our unique potential—with the implication that when we are at our personal best we can have an important impact that reaches beyond the individual.
Too often we shy away from the challenges of trying to appreciate, embrace, and redeem our intrinsic human uniqueness because we may not know how or we fear failure. Instead, we often attempt to mimic what others are doing. While this imitation may be a source of flattery, it is not a path to personal truth and realization. As the spiritual leader Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure” ( A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles [New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1996], p. 190). The great inventors, scientists, philosophers, engineers, and heroes in history have been those people who, in their willingness to follow their own instincts and thoughts, fulfilled their distinctive potential and thereby contributed to a world beyond themselves. Their destiny was not fated, rather it was a by-product of their search for self-truth.
As Jews, we are charged both to develop our individual uniqueness and to play a larger role in the world. Joseph and Tamar, each in their own way, pursued their unique personal destiny and through their actions made a positive impact beyond their time.
Rabbi Neal Katz is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas.
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