Some may be shocked to read the poem that opens the commentary by Rabbi Kipnes. Some may be surprised at the overt nature of the connection he makes between our Torah portion, Mikeitz, and current events in our country. Some may be disturbed by the political nature of a moment dedicated to Torah study.
In Parashat Vayeishev, we read that Joseph suffers sexual harassment at the hands of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is the patriarch Jacob’s second child to face sexual violence, after his daughter Dinah was raped (Gen. 34). In this midrashic monologue, we wonder how Jacob reacted to the news of what happened to Dinah:
Through the gift of modern midrash, Rabbi Kipnes grants our ancestor, Jacob, the opportunity to teach an important lesson about Parashat Vayeishev. With regret at his previous failure to be truly present for his daughter in the face of sexual violence, Jacob voices the responses we hope we would give when confronted with such a terrible situation today. Jacob acknowledges, too late, the role he could have played as an ally and supporter.
Have you ever wanted to kill (or seriously harm) your brother (or sister, or other relative)? The Book of Genesis is replete with enough examples of intended fratricide that we ought to take notice.
Each year, as we reflect on the Torah, our understanding of it is influenced by the times in which we read it. This year, our society is attuned to #MeToo stories of horrific experiences that have come to light. These stories highlight the importance of listening deeply for the voices of victims, those who are not powerful, those who tell their stories, and those who may not yet be ready to share. With this in mind, I want to explore the introduction of two of our matriarchs, Leah and Rachel in Parashat Vayeitzei.
Jewish assimilation — the loss of followers through attrition, absorption into other faiths, or the practice of no faith — harkens back to Joseph, the first Israelite to live in a diaspora. In Mikeitz, we read how Joseph adopted Egyptian customs and clothes, took an Egyptian wife, and was given the Egyptian name Zaphenath-paneah (Genesis 41:45), a sign of acceptance into Egyptian society. Joseph offers us a window into the broad spectrum of Jewish affiliation and practice that exists today.
In Mikeitz we see that Joseph is not an example of assimilation, but rather an example of acculturation and adaption that defines modern Judaism. Joseph attributed his success to God. He navigated the intersection between Judaism and diaspora, overcoming the desire to focus on the supremacy of self and through him our people grew mighty and numerous.
Reading Parashat Vayeishev and other dream-filled portions in Genesis, we wonder if it’s possible to influence a dream’s prophecy rather than passively waiting for the outcome to unfold. The upcoming holiday, Hanukkah, provides a clue.
The story of Joseph and his prophetic dreams in Parashat Vayeishev is familiar to us all, even iconic. It is the beginning of the foundational story of the Jewish people – the 430-year sojourn in Egyptian slavery leading to the Exodus and the coming together as God’s people at Mt. Sinai. Without Joseph and his dreams, the children of Israel would never had ended up in Egypt in the first place.
In Vayeitzei, Jacob encounters God in a dream, thus advancing the biblical journey of our people learning from and following the instruction of God. After the biblical era, our Sages found a way to expand our understanding of the Torah and its teachings.
In Vayeitzei, Jacob learns that he is not the center of his own universe when he encounters God in a dream. Jacob’s understanding of God in this moment is really an understanding of himself as inspirable from the divinity that is all around him and within him.
Many years ago, I taught an adult education class on biblical heroes. Among those we studied was Joseph.
Contained within the story of Joseph and his brothers is a moment of truth, or a moment of hidden truth.
Parashat Vayeishev introduces the Joseph saga. When it begins, Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, is a 17-year-old shepherd working in the fields alongside his older brothers. The text’s description of him as a “youth,” na-ar, is apt, both biologically and emotionally. As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes: “Joseph behaves with the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others” (Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: JPS,1995], p. 253). He consciously tells Jacob malicious tales about the brothers and by wearing the beautiful, multicolored coat (or ornamental tunic) that Jacob has given him, flaunts the fact that he is the favorite son. It is thus not surprising that when Joseph’s brothers see that their father loves him more than they, they come to hate Joseph (Genesis 37:4).
Joseph is not the only figure acting out of self-interest and later gaining an improved understanding of himself and his actions in Parashat Vayeishev. In the middle of the Joseph narrative, we find a story of levirate marriage: the story of Tamar and Judah. Er, Tamar’s husband and Judah’s oldest son, dies before they have any children. As the law of the Torah instructs (Deuteronomy 25:5-6), her husband’s brother, Onan, marries her and the two are meant to conceive a child in the name of his dead brother. Onan refuses and dies childless, like his brother. Judah is distraught and resolves to prevent Tamar from marrying his third son, Shelah, lest he also die. Tamar, upon realizing the wrong being done to her and to Er, resolves to conceive a child through her father-in-law. She tricks Judah into doing the right thing.
Parashat Vayeitzei opens with Jacob journeying from Beersheba to Haran. As the sun sets, he decides to spend the night outside in “the place,” hamakom, where he happens to be, resting his head on one of the stones that he has found there. The biblical text doesn’t tell us the name of this place. Presumably, Jacob himself does not know it. Yet it becomes clear in the next few verses that where exactly this place is and what it is called isn’t important. For after Jacob wakes up the next morning from a dream in which he encounters God, he comes to the life-changing realization that the Eternal is present in this place. “God is here although I didn’t know it initially,” Jacob thinks to himself. “Indeed, this awe-inspiring place is none other than the house of God” (paraphrasing Genesis 28:16-17).
How do we feel God’s presence? It’s easy to envy Jacob’s dream, and his waking realization that he has been close to the Divine.
Arthur Green, in his Introduction to the Zohar, describes mystical experiences as, “striving toward oneness, a breaking down of illusory barriers to reveal the great secret of the unity of all being.” I think about Jacob’s experience in that light. It is a moment in which he understands that he is part of something bigger, and that his life’s journey has meaning.
In this week's Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, receives a visit from his brothers
Rabbi Goldberg points out that Joseph forgives his brothers only after they have illustrated their repentance for the wrong they did to him.